Like other key technologies before them, drones have risen beyond their original military use, and are currently changing the consumer, commercial and civil government markets in industries such as agriculture, construction, media production and logistics.

Although estimates on their potential vary, Goldman Sachs Research forecasts a $100bn market opportunity for drones between now and 2020, while PwC projects there will be around £42bn of economic benefit from drone exploitation in the UK alone over the next decade.

When it comes to their railway applications, drones have proven an invaluable tool for aerial surveying, inspection and security.

Today, Network Rail is using them to carry out track inspections, to enhance safety and spot trespassing incidents, in accident investigation, or to map out vegetation surrounding the tracks. A more novel idea, which hasn’t yet materialised, came in 2015 from the UK Government, which launched an open consultation on ways to use unmanned aerial vehicles to provide WiFi on trains.

Network Rail isn’t the only rail player capitalising on the benefits of drones. In Spain, technology company SigmaRail recently used them to scan an under-construction high-speed rail corridor between the cities of Alicante and Murcia and create an accurate digital model of the tracks. This information can be used to decrease the effort and costs of traditional surveys.

French multinational company Thales, which recently launched Soarizon – a software-based digital operations centre that aims to improve how trusted drone operators from multiple sectors work with each other – believes that “those who prosper will do so because they anticipate continuous, far reaching transformation, and will equip their organisation with the right foundations for change”.

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But challenges still remain: regulation surrounding the commercial deployment of drones hasn’t yet fully developed, there’s uncertainty behind safety practices, licensing and geo-fencing, and the full potential of drones is yet to be discovered.

Joel Grundy, head of strategic growth opportunities at Thales Group, explains how the railway industry can exploit the opportunities currently available in drone operations, and addresses some of the barriers that remain.

Eva Grey: How do you predict that the growing use of drones will affect the rail industry in the years to come?

Joel Grundy: There are numerous ways in which drones are going to revolutionise the railway industry in the future. I think we are going to see, in a very short space of time, a lot of consolidation in the market for drone technologies, as drones become more affordable, reliable and they are tailored to work for the specific needs and within the particular regulations of numerous different industries.

Consulting group PwC predicts that by 2020 the global market for drone technology will reach $127bn and that there will be £42bn of economic upside from drone exploitation in the UK alone over the next decade, alongside the widespread public and social benefits.

Looking at potential uses and applications in the railway industry, the ability to capture high-definition real-time video imagery from height via drones is going to prove to be an invaluable new technology in the near future. Particularly when it comes to monitoring the quality of the rail network infrastructure, with commercial drones already available that are able to identify and notify companies of the slightest deteriorations in track quality, for example.

Has the full potential of the technology been discovered yet?

Right now, we are merely scratching the surface of the industrial potential of drone technology. New innovations in drone technologies are taking place in the commercial context of the many opportunities and challenges that drone operators face in order to harness the tech into viable, industrialised services fit for widespread use.

And it will be those drone innovators who accurately anticipate the most continuous and far-reaching transformations, and who equip their drones and organisations with the right foundations for these changes, who will prosper and flourish in the future.

That PwC estimate quoted above is certainly impressive, and one that gives a good idea of the scale and the importance of this new market for drone operators – those organisations or commercial entities who deliver imagery, monitoring or transportation services using drones.

How can rail companies capitalise on the commercial opportunities presented by drones?

The potential for the rail industry to capitalise on the commercial opportunities presented by drones, alongside the predictions for growth in the drone market over the next decade, are nothing less than phenomenal.

I think the infrastructure monitoring and accident investigation areas are two of the more understandable areas in which rail companies will benefit massively from affordable, reliable and fit-for-purpose drone tech.

Regular monitoring of track, for example, will not only highlight areas of corrosion or deterioration that need to be cleaned, fixed or replaced. They will also highlight minor changes in track quality over time, allowing for rail companies to plan track improvement work far better and far more ahead of time than has been previously possible.

Plus, of course, drones can easily access areas that are remote or are traditionally very difficult to access by humans – thus helping to improve safety, efficiency and save a considerable amount of time when it comes to monitoring and expanding the lifespan of track in such zones.

What are some of the pitfalls that players need to be wary of as the technology grows and matures?

As with any autonomous and artificially intelligent technology, the idea of self-controlling drones taking over jobs that involve monitoring the safety of rail track is fraught with moral, ethical and basic safety problems.

So while drones are clearly capable of radically improving reach, efficiency, repeatability and accuracy in areas like rail infrastructure surveying, inspection and mapping, we are going to have to ensure that rail companies and the people that run them are always ultimately accountable for the safety, efficiency and for the overall passenger experience and usability of their rail networks.

How should the rail industry prepare to welcome drones into operations?

Almost everyone has an idea for how they can exploit this ‘Swiss army knife’ technology, with a dizzying array of development, trialling and deployment demonstrating the value of drones in a wide variety of both extraordinary and mundane tasks, such as parcel carrying, bridge painting, railway inspection, track monitoring, accident reviewing and much more.

The rail industry needs to work as closely as possibly with the drone operators, as they reside at that pivotal point where demand, supply, technologies, revenues, obligations and opportunities meet.

Their role is to consider the art of the possible within commercial, technical and operational terms, and interweave theirs and others’ capabilities to deliver the most effective and efficient service for each job. Doing so not once, but dozens or hundreds of times a day, means not only mastering their own skills and decision making but consistently meeting the demands of a variety of rail industry stakeholders, including customers, competitors, investors, suppliers and regulators.