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Swiss Federal Railways uses drones to inspect rockslides

The Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) has turned to drone technology to make its lines safer and track potential rockslides before they happen. This is done with its in-house drone pilots and Drone Harmony’s Hill Scan software platform.

As a part of the SBB’s ongoing maintenance work, it regularly checks its rail lines as they begin to head into the mountains. This consists of looking out for potential rockslides that could destroy a passing train and kill the passengers.

To do this, the company used to go in on foot and manually check the location, or go in by helicopter to get a closer look if the mountainside is too high up to see with the naked eye. Both of these methods are time-consuming, dangerous, and expensive for several reasons.

With Hill Scan’s help, the company no longer needs to put its workers in the path of a potential rockslide that could suddenly happen while they are there. Drones will now be used to scan the whole mountainside and detect any issues. The software can pinpoint the exact location that has the issue, allowing workers to go in a fix the issue.

Nicolas Ackermann, development engineer at Drone Competence Centre in SBB:

“Gathering the required drone data is challenging for several reasons. In the past, there was no software solution out there that could automate flight planning. Standard terrain-aware planning was not suitable due to the tricky and steep slopes. Hill Scan should solve this problem for us. We also love the simple and very visual workflow in Drone Harmony and how terrain data is handled in the cloud and web app.”

The map that is created by the drone is a displacement map. It tracks the number of displacement areas on the mountain, coloring them in with yellow and progressing down to a dark purple for areas with no displacement.

This method is much safer as it keeps the workers in one area on the mountain rather than checking everything. This also cuts down the amount of time required on a repair or fix and saves the company a lot of money by not having its workers on the mountain for an extended period of time.

As the Swiss Federal Railways is using drones for many day-to-day tasks, it recently opened the Center of Competence for Drones, which oversees all of its drone operations and is home to over 100 specially trained pilots, with access to a fleet of 80 drones.

Photo: Drone Harmony

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Avatar for Josh Spires Josh Spires

Josh started in the drone community in 2012 with a drone news Twitter account. Over the years Josh has gained mass exposure from his aerial photography work and spends his days writing drone content for DroneDJ as well as pursuing his business.