BNSF Railway and FAA are testing drones for bridge and air quality inspections

Drones aren’t just good for taking arial pictures of your neighborhood or accidentally crashing into trees. They can be used to inspect rural railroad bridges as well as monitor air quality, too.

Edward R. Hamberger, President and CEO of the Association of American Railroads, said Wednesday morning during a State of the Industry call that BNSF Railway, the country’s second largest railroad, is working with the Federal Aviation Administration on drone pilot program.

The program called the “Pathfinder Program” uses drones to remotely inspect track, bridge and other freight rail infrastructures as well as monitor the quality of air in and around railroad lines.

The program is for more than modernizing a transportation industry that to many in the public looks virtually archaic. Drones can provide meaningful support in the safety of railroads.

“Soon, a drone flying at 500 feet may be able to spot a quarter-inch separation in a rail line even at night and in poor weather conditions.” read the railroad 2016 State of the Industry report.

BNSF is one of three American companies, including CNN and PrecisionHawk, working with the FAA in public-private partnership to research safe drone operation.

Though Hamberger admitted the use of drones is very promising for the rail industry, there are many questions that need to be answered before drones become a regular part of the railroad safety infrastructure.

“Does it in fact allow over the line of sight inspection of bridges? How will that work?” Hamberger rhetorically asked during the call.

While questions still need to be answered, it’s clear drones will likely play a role in the future of rail. After all, they can safely inspect parts of the freight rail lines where temperatures can drop well below zero during the dead of winter.

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