Subscriber Login


Drones for rail: Increasing deployment in the European market [free access]

January 1, 2019

The deployment of drones in the railway sector for conducting surveys, carrying out inspections, and ensuring security has been advancing rapidly. These deployments are most prominent and widespread in Europe, particularly on national rail networks.


Drone-powered solutions, also referred to as unmanned aerial system (UAS) and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), are being developed, trialled, and deployed by various European rail players for complex as well as mundane tasks.


Estimated industry size 


The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the civil aviation regulatory authority of the European Union (EU), has stated that between 2016 and 2022, the size of the global UAS market is expected to increase to USD21.23 billion by 2022, registering a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 19.99 per cent.


Further, the Single European Sky ATM Research (SESAR) Joint Undertaking (SJU) issued the “European Drones Outlook Study: Unlocking the Value for Europe” in November 2016, which concluded that:



Overview of European deployment


Various countries in Europe are testing or deploying drones for surveys, asset maintenance, surveillance, etc. Table 1 summarises information about the deployment of drones on rail networks in European countries.


Table 1: Various uses of drone system on rail networks in Europe


Authority/company in-charge

Purpose of deployment

Key supplier/player(s)


SNCF Réseau

Topographical surveys, network mapping, inspection work, surveillance,  maintenance

Altametris (a subsidiary of SNCF Réseau), ARCEP, CBIL, Delair Tech, DGAC, ONERA


Deutsche Bahn (DB)

Surveillance, inspection and assessment, construction planning

Microdrones (manufacturer)



Checking of switch point heating systems on tracks, inspection of corrosion protection on steel structures



Bane NOR

Surveillance as well as lubrication of switches using self-propelled (autonomous) drones

Nordic Unmanned, Total Trafikkhjelp, IRIS Group Nordic


CAF Signalling

Geolocalisation of signalling systems on high- speed lines

SigmaRail, UC3M Intelligent Systems Laboratory

Thales, Adif

Fault-detection tests on Madrid–Seville high-speed line for maintenance work

SigmaRail, UC3M Intelligent Systems Laboratory


Department for Transport (DfT)

Test and trials for DfT’s Pathfinder Programme


Transport for London (TfL)

Asset surveys and maintenance on London Underground network

Lanes Rail

Network Rail (NR)

Inspection works and maintenance

Aecom, Cyberhawk,  NR’s Air Operations team

Note: Adif: Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviaria; ARCEP: Autorité de Régulation des Communications Électroniques et des Postes; CNIL: Commission nationale de l'informatique et des libertés; DGAC: Direction générale de l'Aviation civile; ONERA: Office National d'Etudes et de Recherches Aérospatiales

Source: Global Mass Transit Research


The various initiatives taken by the different authorities and companies in their respective countries are discussed further.




Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français (SNCF) has been using drones for its inspection, surveillance, and maintenance work since 2013. The authority has established a subsidiary, Altametris, which provides customised drone solutions with a focus on sensors, designs innovative solutions, and processes data. Table 2 provide details of the drones operated by Altametris.


Table 2: Key details of drones operated by Altametris




2–20 kg


High-definition video/photo equipment, multispectral thermal cameras (infrared frequency band), and/or LiDAR (laser system that measures 3D environment)


12 drones and robots

Source: SNCF


Altametris has established scientific and regulatory partnerships with various organisations and companies such as:



Further, Altametris is working with other France-based electricity operators as well as foreign operators (such as Swiss Railways).




Since 2015, the DB multicopter team has been operating drones nationwide for surveillance, construction planning, as well as checking trees on railway lines. The authority uses 12 types of multicopters (drones), which are differentiated on the basis of load capacity, flight duration, and operational readiness. Each drone is equipped with cameras, which can record videos as well as capture high-resolution digital images or infrared images.




ProRail used drones equipped with infrared sensors to check the switch point heating systems on its tracks. Using images provided by the drone, the authority checked whether the switch point heating systems are operating correctly.


Further, Arcadis used drones to inspect ProRail’s steel infrastructure. The company visually inspected the status of corrosion protection on the steel infrastructure, determined the condition of the protection, estimated the remaining lifecycle of the bridge’s coating, advised on actions to ensure maintenance, and assessed the advantages and disadvantages of manual inspection.




In December 2016, Bane NOR awarded six contracts for the provision of surveillance for six infrastructure areas under the jurisdiction of the National Rail Administration. Total Trafikkhjelp secured the contract for the north area, IRIS Group Nordic secured the contract for the west area, and Nordic Unmanned secured the contracts for the remaining four areas. These companies will provide high-quality video and still images, enable infrared and thermal photography, and conduct terrain model analysis.


In June 2018, Bane NOR announced plans to develop a system wherein a self-propelled (autonomous) drone will lubricate rail switches (track exchangers, where trains move from one track to another). The system will be programmed with a driving route using map coordinates. Bane NOR is the first authority in the world to adopt drone technology for railway maintenance.




Spain-based SigmaRail is providing drone-based solutions to CAF Signalling and Thales for asset management on high-speed rail lines in Spain. The company has developed drones in collaboration with UC3M Intelligent Systems Laboratory. Table 3 provides details of the drone used by SigmaRail on Spanish high-speed lines.


Table 3: Key details of SigmaRail’s drone




RGB or infrared cameras


Each photograph is geo-localised using an on-board GPS

Distance covered

Around 6-km section in less than an hour

Data collected

2GB data in a 20-minute flight

Source: SigmaRail


CAF Signalling (CAF):


SigmaRail provided an automated drone solution to CAF for the installation of a signalling system, based on the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) standard, on the Alicante–Murcia high-speed line. The company had developed specific tools to put data taken from UAVs into a format that could be used by CAF to programme ERTMS equipment.


Thales and Administrador de Infraestructuras Ferroviaria (Adif):


The company deployed drones to conduct fault-detection tests. The process reduces the amount of time invested in track maintenance as well as the number of times that rail assets need to be checked.


United Kingdom


Various transport authorities in the country are exploring the deployment of drones systems from different suppliers in different rail segments.


Department for Transport (DfT):


The DfT launched the Pathfinder Programme in 2017, which focuses on a series of partnerships between government and industry in key sectors. Under the programme, SenSat (on behalf of DfT) is conducting tests and trials to learn how drones can be used to improve services across a range of sectors.


In June 2018, the company secured special permission to conduct trials at distances greater than 500 metres from the remote pilot or ‘beyond the visual line of sight’ (BVLOS).


Transport for London (TfL):


After a 12-month testing and approval process, TfL granted permission to Lanes Rail to carry asset surveys on the London Underground network using drones. It is the first contractor to secure a long-term licence for operating drones on TfL properties.


In May 2017, the company secured a five-year contract to provide maintenance work for the network. It is responsible for maintaining and repairing a wide range of assets, including track drainage lines, station buildings, bridges, power sites, and engineering works.


Network Rail (NR):


The NR has deployed drones systems for:



The authority’s overall approach is intended to improve efficiency through the remote monitoring of assets and reduce the need for on-site inspections by field personnel. Table 4 provides details of the drones used by NR.


Table 4: Key details of drones used by NR




7 kg (maximum)


Permitted to fly up to 500 metres away from pilot


Permitted to fly up to a height of 400 feet

Flight time before recharge

20 minutes


Minimum of two (one pilot in command and one observer/camera operator)*


High-definition 4K video imaging and high-resolution stills camera systems**


  • Built-in geospatial environment online (GEO) fencing
  • Built-in return to home (RTH) protocol
  • Multiple motors and rotor blades

Note: *Some projects may require more crew, like spotters, engineers, aides, etc.;

**Camera quality varies from project to project

Source: NR


Regulation of drones across countries


Several countries have established laws and regulations for the operation of UAVs. The EASA has allowed each EU member state to make its own laws and regulations for drones/UAVs (with weight of 150 kg or less).


Table 5 summarises the regulations governing the operation of drones in various countries.


Table 5: Laws governing operation of drones across countries


Law-regulating authority

Weight of drone

Maximum speed

Maximum altitude

Distance from pilot



French Civil Aviation Authority

≥25 kg

Not defined

150 metres (492 feet) above ground level or 50 metres (164 feet) above any artificial object more than 100 metres (328 feet) in height

VLOS and BVLOS operations within a certain regulatory framework, depending on weight of drone


German Federal Aviation Office (FAO)

≤5–25 kg: Commercial

Not defined

100 metres (328 feet); 50 metres (164 feet) in case of controlled airspace

VLOS operations


Agencia Española de Seguridad Aérea (AESA)

≥2 kg: Private

<2–150 kg: Commercial

Not defined

120 metres above ground level

> 500 metres;

> 15 km for approved BVLOS flights


Civilian Aviation Authority (CAA)

≥ 20 kg: Private

<20–150 kg: Commercial

Not defined

122 metres (400 feet) above ground level

VLOS operations; commercial BVLOS operations are not permitted

North America


Transport Canada

≥35 kg: Private

<35 kg: Commercial

Not defined

90 metres (295 feet) above ground level

> 500 metres


Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

≥25 kg (55 lbs): Commercial

161 km/hr (100 mi/hr)

122 metres (400 feet) above ground level or structure

VLOS operations

Asia Pacific







Civil Aviation Administration of China

≤0.25 kg

100 km/hr

122 metres (400 feet) above ground level

VLOS and BVLOS operations within a certain regulatory framework


Japan Civil Aviation Bureau, Ministry of Land,

Infrastructure and Transportation

<200 grams

Not defined

150 metres (492 feet) above ground level

VLOS operations

New Zealand

Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand

≥25 kg (55 lbs)

Not defined

122 metres (400 feet) above ground level

VLOS; BVLOS operations allowed after acquiring certificate


South Africa

South African Civil Aviation Authority

≥20 kg

Not defined

122 metres (400 feet) above ground level

VLOS; BVLOS operations allowed on special approval

Note: VLOS – Visual line of sight

Source: Global Mass Transit Research


Recent developments



The way ahead


The predictions for the growth of the drone market indicate the great potential for the rail industry to capitalise on commercial opportunities in asset management. Infrastructure monitoring and accident investigation are the two key areas in which rail companies can benefit greatly from the deployment of drone technology.


In addition, the development of autonomous drones equipped with artificial intelligence (AI) technology provides significant opportunities for players to reduce cost, time, and risk.