Swiss Federal Railways makes use of drone knowledge to take care of and develop its rail infrastructure – Drones Information


Known in Switzerland as SBB, the federal rail system offers the highest quality national public transport in Europe according to the European Railway Performance Index. In addition to traffic, SBB also monitors the energy infrastructure and real estate that it supports. The company, founded in 1902, has developed into a Swiss icon and shows reliability and quality. While his legacy may tempt people to think it is traditional, it is very forward-looking.

“If you ask people, you might think that SBB is an old government company and really not innovation-driven,” said Andreas Hoffmann, project engineer at the SBB Center for Drone Competence. “What I learned is that it’s really the opposite. I was surprised at how flexible they are, especially in certain areas based on virtual reality, augmented reality, machine learning, and now drones.”

WingtraOne joins a legion of around 80 drones with which SBB monitors the infrastructure and the effects of climate change.

Mapping the effects of climate change on an energy producing lake

The Sihlsee is an artificial lake in the canton of Schwyz that is used to generate energy. SBB monitors this infrastructure, including the turbines on the lake floor that generate electricity when snow melts and rainwater flows into them. They started flying WingtraOne over the lake to map the shore and various water levels because they cannot afford to stay low for too long.

If the Sihlsee is not filled to a certain level by the end of May, SBB must pay fines. In some cases, they have to pump water out of Lake Zurich to restore the Sihlsee level. These cases occur more and more often when the climate reduces snowfall, melting and precipitation.

“This is problematic, because as soon as it is below the agreed level, SBB pays a fee every day. So there are two options: pumping water back up from Lake Zurich – which costs a lot of money – or paying a fine, “said Hoffmann.

Since WingtraOne can take off from small sections of the withdrawn coast and cover the entire lake with a precision of 4 cm, it can provide the data required for SBB’s request for changes to the regulations regarding the water level. You are currently discussing with the government the agreed levels in the face of climate change.

Sihlsee drone map

When measuring Lake Sihl with WingtraOne, we covered 300 ha in less than two hours. This mapping project is not possible with conventional drones due to their coverage limits or the space required for takeoff and landing. Andreas Hoffman
Project engineer at the Center for Drone Competence at SBB

Intelligent vegetation management along the railway lines

Switzerland is known for its majestic nature and is conservative when it comes to culling vegetation. However, vegetation along the railway lines can disrupt the function and service of the train. So far, SBB has used a herbicide called glyphosate to manage vegetation on a large scale. The public is concerned about this chemical and it is costing the company to use it on a large scale. Therefore, they are now using drone data to determine where the vegetation needs to be treated in order to target herbicides.

“SBB is trying to replace this chemical,” said Hoffmann. “You did a test that only sprayed hot water and the results are promising. To use fewer chemicals, it’s important to use machine learning. That’s why we created a WingtraOne data-based map using machine learning algorithms that show and mark the vegetation along the trails. And then they have a data card, which they put in the spray car and which shows the automatic opening and closing of valves when the hot water is needed. “

WingtraOne was very useful and quick for the test. This is a huge area between Zurich HB and Alstetten. It would take days with a multirotor and for us with WingtraOne it would take a few hours. Andreas Hoffmann Project engineer at the Center for Drone Competence at SBB

Climate change, tree falls and drone data

This spring and summer, the SBB started wingtraOne, the multi-spectral drone data collection on forest areas near railway lines. As climate change has resulted in less rainfall, some individual trees in the middle of the forest die and fall in directions that can affect the railroad tracks.

“SBB has a limitation on how close trees can be to the route,” said Hoffman. “It has worked pretty well so far, but now the problem with climate change is that we have single trees that die in the forest or dry up completely, and this cannot be seen from below.”

As more dead trees fall near the tracks, this poses a greater threat to rail traffic in forest areas. The areas examined are large and require both broad coverage and accuracy if drone surveying is to be efficient and useful. In this case, the functions of WingtraOne offer a great opportunity to collect enough preventive data to ensure safety by showing the SBB which trees are dead so that they can fell them before they fall.

Multispectral drone release in the JuraIn this output-based WingtraOne RGB map, the dying vegetation is shown as brown.Multispectral infrared composite drone data outputWith WingtraOne and its MicaSense RedEdge payload, SBB flew over the Jura Mountains near the rail infrastructure to collect multispectral data. This composite infrared map shows a green color when the vegetation dies.Multispectral drone release in the JuraIn this output-based WingtraOne RGB map, the dying vegetation is shown as brown.Multispectral infrared composite drone data outputThe SBB flew with WingtraOne over the Jura near the rail infrastructure

What brings Wingtra “into another league”

SBB has around 100 trained drone pilots and around 80 drones in use. Hoffman is one of two consultants working at the SBB competence center for drones. He has been well connected in the Swiss drone world for several years and has an experienced attitude to which ones can best deal with which jobs.

“We offer the division a consulting service,” he said. “If you want to use drones, we explain what type of drone would work, what you would like to do with it and why. Then we work with onboarding and analysis and everything they need to do their business. “

Hoffman says that SBB’s natural resources staff alone want to use WingtraOne for their projects every two weeks. Demand across applications is growing for more reasons than exceptional accuracy and coverage.

“If there isn’t a lot of space to take off and land – compared to a conventional fixed wing, for example – you can still operate it and get the cover of a fixed wing. It’s also less noisy than other drones when in normal flight mode. This is helpful if you are in areas where people may be sensitive to the use of drones. It is likely to be accepted more than other drones. “

According to Hoffman, as a company around the world that relies on an aging infrastructure, the focus is now shifting to the inspection and maintenance of this infrastructure. This requires intelligent technology and inexpensive solutions.

“WingtraOne offers a difference in size and price compared to traditional multi-rotors,” he said. “On the other hand, with this price, you ultimately win the time you are there. If we can do more in a better resolution in a shorter amount of time, this price will be competitive.”

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