How Drones are Perfect for Railroads

The United States has almost 140,000 miles of railroads over 61,000 Class I bridges, according to the 2017 Infrastructure Report Card produced by the American Society of Civil Engineers. One third of U.S. exports, delivering five million tons of freight, and just under 100,000 passengers use these railroad tracks daily.

Freight railroads in the U.S. belong to three categories: Class I, Class II, and Class III.

These are based upon the distance served and earnings:

  • Class I: 7 large railroads
  • Class II: 21 regional railroads
  • Class II: 547 short line railroads

These numbers have nearly doubled since 1980 and it is predicted by federal forecasts that there will be nearly 40% increase in U.S. freight shipments, including by rail, by 2040.

Maintaining the conditions of most of the nation’s track, bridges, and connections at ports and intermodal facilities are the responsibility of the freight railroad owners. This includes regular maintenance, replacement, and upgrade of the facilities.

Amtrak operates a 21,000 mile network of rail line in more than 500 communities, serving over 30 million passengers (2016 data). The passenger system is comprised of the Northeast Corridor (NEC) and the “national network” of 15 interstate routes.

Over 90% of Amtrak’s network, and virtually all the “national network” travel on tracks that are owned by freight railroads. Much of the Northeast Corridor’s (NEC’s) infrastructure is overdue for repairs, yet it is still considered to be “safe” to operate. Because major repairs are beyond its useful time, that is, an average age of major NEC backlog projects is 111 years. As a result, the cost of maintenance is increasing at a fast pace.

Railroad infrastructure within the United States has the opportunity to up level their technology for inspecting railroads. Companies like Ardenna, perform track inspections and have developed new techniques to enable autonomous and artificial intelligence systems to assist in maintenance in situations that were previously impossible.

Ardenna found that railways do not require track occupancy when using drones. Drones with their agility and speed, are able to inspect multiple tracks simultaneously  with a wide range of automated detection that provides actionable results in hours instead of days.


Basic Track Componentry Inspection

  • Track Ballast
  • Rail Sleeper (railroad ties, railway ties or crossties)
  • Rail Fish Plate (fish bolt, rail joint bar, splice bar)
  • Rail Fasteners
  • Spikes

Complex Track Componentry Inspection

  • Points (Points Blades)
  • Frog (Common Crossing)
  • Guard Rail (Check Rail)
  • Switch Motor
  • Points Lever
  • Point Machine Conversion
  • Facing Point Lock
  • Joints
  • Straight and Curved Switches
  • Point Indicators
  • Railway Switch
  • Slip Switches (Double Slip, Single Slip, Outside Slip)
  • Crossover
  • Stub Switch
  • Plate Switch
  • Three-way Switch
  • Off-trailer
  • Interlaced turnout
  • Wye Switch
  • Run-off points (derailers)
  • Dual gauge switches
  • Rack railway switches
  • Switch diamond
  • Single-point switch
  • Expansion Joints

Safety is the greatest benefit above ALL for using drones in the railroad industry .

Because trains are scheduled daily along most railways, placing a maintenance worker on the track in a specially equipped vehicle can be extremely hazardous and many precautions must be inplace to ensure the safety for the worker. Drones are an easy solution since they are flying high above the trains and easily be able to inspect the railroad.

Because these drones fly autonomously over railways at impressive speed, they are able to collect data on more than one railway at once without having a workers life in jeopardy. As drones fly at higher altitudes they can cover multiple tracks, even as many as three to four at a time.

Railway drones can also provide high-resolution data in a short period of time. These collection parameters produce a 3D model, which is applied to detect anomalies by using change detection or in some cases even artificial intelligence (AI).

The FAA requires a visual line-of-sight (VLOS) with the drone. This is the most relevant regulation to pay attention to when inspecting railroads because of the need to cover long distances at a time.

The applications of drones in railways include the following:

  • Preparing contour maps of the area where new rail lines are proposed.
  • 3D models of stations for visualization.
  • 3D models of the terrain to draw accurate plans.
  • GIS mapped data can be used to calculate the length of track laid and create 3D models to help project managers map potential risks to construction.
  • Periodic assessment of assets.
  • Inspection of hard-to-reach areas such as bridges and tunnels.
  • Monitoring electrical works along the length of railway tracks.
  • Inspect railway tracks for corrosion, cracks or fractures.
  • Serve as first responders in case of natural calamities by quickly assessing damages in railway network and providing crucial insights to emergency personnel.


Drone technology can increase overall efficiency because flying over and around a bridge or railroad track makes operational interruptions unnecessary. By using drones to supplement conventional methods of inspections, the amount of time workers need to be on the track decreases, thus increasing safety.

It is estimated that Aerial data acquisition by ideaForge’s drones, equipped with sensors, can decrease the capital costs of railway projects by 12% and maintenance by 17%.

We have seen the incredible amount of applications there are for the use of drones in the railway industry. The opportunities for someone to use drones and make considerable money is immense in this market.

1 thought on “How Drones are Perfect for Railroads”

  1. Malcolm Carmine

    I would like to make money flying drones. I have my Part 107 license. I live in San Diego, California, any information about starting a business flying drones would be really appreciated. Thank you for your time.

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