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Swiss Federal Railways uses drone data to maintain and develop its rail infrastructure

Known in Switzerland as SBB, the Swiss Federal Railways system provides the highest quality national public transit service in Europe according to the European Railway Performance Index. In addition to transportation, SBB also oversees energy infrastructure and real estate that supports it, among other projects. Established in 1902, the firm has become a Swiss icon, demonstrating reliability and quality. While its legacy might tempt people to think it’s traditional, it’s very much forward thinking.

“If you ask people, they may think that SBB is an old government company and really not innovation driven,” said Andreas Hoffmann, Project Engineer at SBB’s Center for Drone Competence. “What I’ve learned is that it’s really quite the opposite. I’ve been surprised by how flexible they are, especially in certain areas relying on virtual reality, augmented reality, machine learning, and now drones.”

WingtraOne joins a legion of about 80 drones that SBB uses to monitor infrastructure as well as the effects that climate change is having on it.

Mapping climate change’s impact on an energy-generating lake

The Sihlsee is a man-made lake in Canton Schwyz used for energy generation. SBB oversees this infrastructure, including turbines sitting on the lake bed, which generate electricity when snowmelt and rain water flow into it. They started flying WingtraOne over the lake to map the shore and various water levels, because they can not afford it if the lake stays low for too long.

In fact, if the Sihlsee doesn’t fill to a certain level by the end of May, SBB must pay penalties. In some cases, they must pump water from Lake Zurich to restore the Sihlsee levels. These cases are becoming more frequent with the climate reducing the snowfall and melt, as well as rainfall.

“That’s problematic because as soon as it’s below the agreed level, SBB pays a fee every day. So there are two options: pump water up from Lake Zurich again—which costs a lot of money—or pay a fine,” Hoffmann said.

Because WingtraOne can take off from small patches of receded shoreline and cover the entire lake, at 4 cm (2 in) accuracy, fast, it can offer the data needed to back SBB’s request for regulation changes around the water levels. They’re now in discussions with the government about the agreed levels in light of climate changes.

Drone map of Sihlsee

When we surveyed the Sihlsee with WingtraOne, we captured 300 ha (741 acres) in less than two hours. This mapping project is not possible with conventional drones because of their coverage limits or space needed for take-off and landing. Andreas Hoffman
Project Engineer at SBB’s Center for Drone Competence

Smart vegetation management along rail lines

Switzerland is known for its majestic nature and takes a conservative approach to culling vegetation. However, along rail lines, vegetation can disrupt train function and service. So far, SBB has been widely applying an herbicide called glyphosate to manage the vegetation. The public has become concerned about this chemical, and it costs the company to apply it widely. So they’re now using drone data to map where vegetation needs to be treated to apply herbicide in a targeted way.

“SBB tries things to substitute that chemical,” said Hoffmann. “They made a test just spraying hot water, and the results are promising.  In order to use less chemicals, it’s important to use machine learning. So we made a WingtraOne-data based map by using machine learning algorithms, showing and marking vegetation along the tracks. And then they have a data card that they put in the spray wagon that informs the automatic openning and closing of valves where the hot water is needed.”

For the test, WingtraOne was very useful and fast. This is a huge area, between Zurich HB and Alstetten. With a multirotor, it would take days, and for us, using WingtraOne, it took a few hours. Andreas Hoffmann Project Engineer at SBB’s Center for Drone Competence

Climate change, tree falls and drone data

This spring and summer, SBB has begun multispectral drone data capture with WingtraOne over forested areas near rail lines. Since climate change has resulted in less precipitation, some individual trees are dying in the middle of the forest and falling in directions that can affect the railway tracks.

“SBB has a limitation on how close trees can be to the track,” Hoffman said. “That worked so far pretty good, but now the problem with climate change is that we have single trees that die or completely dry out within the forest, and this can’t be seen from below.”

As more and more dead trees fall near the tracks, this presents a greater threat to rail traffic in forested areas. The areas under study are large and demand both broad coverage and accuracy if a drone survey is to be efficient and useful. In this case, WingtraOne’s capabilities present a big opportunity to gather enough preventative data to keep tracks safe by showing SBB which trees are dead so they can cut them down before they fall.

Multispectral drone output in the Jura mountains
In this WingtraOne RGB output-based map, dying vegetation shows up as brown.
Multispectral infrared composite drone data output
SBB has been flying over the Jura mountains near rail infrastructure with WingtraOne and its MicaSense RedEdge payload to capture multispectral data. This infrared composite map displays green coloring where vegetation is dying.
Multispectral drone output in the Jura mountains
In this WingtraOne RGB output-based map, dying vegetation shows up as brown.
Multispectral infrared composite drone data output
SBB has been flying over the Jura mountains near rail infrastructure with WingtraOne 

What puts Wingtra “in a different league”

SBB has around 100 trained drone pilots and around 80 drones in operation. Hoffman is one of two consultants working in SBB’s center of drone competence. He’s been well-connected in the Swiss drone world for several years and has an experienced take on which ones can handle which jobs, best.

“We provide a consulting service to the business unit,” he explained. “If they want to use drones, we explain what kind of drone would work, what they would want to do with it and why. Then we work with the onboarding and analytics and everything they need until their business is done.”

Hoffman says that people in SBB’s natural resources department alone are asking to use WingtraOne every second week for their projects. The demand across applications is growing, for more reasons than its exceptional accuracy and coverage.

“If there is not a lot of space where you can start and land—compared to a conventional fixed-wing for instance—you can still operate it and get the coverage of a fixed-wing. It’s also less loud than other drones are when it’s in its normal flight mode, and this helps if you are in areas where people may be sensitive about the use of drones. It will probably be more accepted than other drones.”

As organizations around the world depending on aging infrastructure, Hoffman said the focus is now shifting to checking and maintaining it. This requires smart technology and cost-effective solutions.

WingtraOne presents a difference in size and price compared with conventional multirotors,” he said. “On the other hand what you gain with that price, in the end, is the time you are there, and if we can do more in a better resolution in less time, then this price becomes competitive.”

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