Watch: TriMet experimenting with drone for rail infrastructure inspections

Written by RT&S Staff
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TriMet is executing a pilot program using drones for inspections.

TriMet launched a pilot project in July to get a new view of track infrastructure and help in the assessment of maintenance needs.

In the final week of July, TriMet will begin using a small drone to enhance the way the agency inspects the parts of the system that are either high up, like the overhead wires that power MAX trains, or difficult to reach, such as the undersides of bridges. TriMet plans to use this pilot project to assess whether the full-time use of a drone would improve analysis of the MAX system. Keeping staff safer and trains moving faster also are priorities, as crews regularly inspect the infrastructure of light rail by waking the tracks during service. This results in trains slowing down through these areas.

The first public use of the drone will be on Tuesday, July 27, to assist with TriMet’s annual inspection of the MAX components on the Steel Bridge. This will allow crews to get an up-close, bird’s eye view of the light-rail infrastructure on the bridge without having to send crews up a structure that’s more than 100 years old. Crews will follow that work up with an inspection of Portland Streetcar’s overhead wires near Portland State University on Thursday, July 29, and then the MAX overhead wires at Southwest Morrison and Yamhill on Friday, July 30.

In the works for more than two years, the drone inspection pilot project is a way to use advances in technology to better maintain the reliability of the MAX system. When there are issues with the overhead wires, it can result in disruptions as crews repair the damage.

TriMet does not plan to use the drone to replace the manual inspections that crews already regularly perform from the ground. Crews conduct these by walking the tracks and using binoculars to view the wires above. The team responsible for the overhead wire system is made up of 11 employees and two managers. However, using a drone means staff will be spending less time directly on the tracks or using boom trucks to reach elevated areas, creating a safer work environment.

“We’re taking inspections to a new level by taking to the air,” TriMet’s Maintenance of Way Coordinator Matt Baccitich said. “We think the program can grow with the agency as we find more ways to use the drone, not just to inspect things in the right-of-way, but also our facilities or other places that are difficult to access.”

The drone will allow inspectors to look directly at, or straight down, on parts of the system that they otherwise couldn’t inspect without stopping trains. The images—both still and video—will be collected and analyzed over time. This visual history has the potential to allow crews to track wear and tear and help make predictions about where issues may arise in the future.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limits commercial drone flights to a ceiling of 400 feet above the ground, and within line-of-sight of the pilot. TriMet’s drone will fly far below that, as the highest point in the system, the top of the Tilikum Crossing, is about 200 ft above the Willamette River. Currently, TriMet has one licensed drone operator who’s in contact with the FAA to ensure compliance with all airspace regulations.

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