Rising to the Occasion: Union Pacific Drones Support Safe Operations

Collage of employees using drones | L

More than 250 Union Pacific employees are certified to fly drones.

Union Pacific Railroad is leveraging technology to support safe operations from every viewpoint – on its tracks, inside its locomotives and hundreds of feet off the ground with its drones.

To mitigate potential risk, drones help survey the railroad’s 32,000-mile network and inspect more than 16,900 bridges.

“Drones are used for a variety of purposes, from conducting yard and industry audits to performing storm assessments and analyzing derailments,” said Kevin Watts, manager-Safety Field Operations, who leads the railroad’s drone program. “Our Operating team finds drones incredibly useful.”

Union Pacific drone operators meet high safety standards. Employees must complete an intensive training course, obtain a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) commercial drone license, undergo Union Pacific’s rules training and attend a hands-on class on railroad property.

Employees viewing drone on portable monitor. | M

New portable monitors show employees what drones see during infrastructure inspections.

More than 250 employees are certified to fly drones; another 42 pilots are in training, a number expected to increase in the next year.

Union Pacific annually conducts more than 38,000 bridge inspections to proactively detect potential defects such as corrosion or cracks in trusses. Drones supplement manual infrastructure inspections and expand the area of visualization, contributing to overall employee safety by reducing the need to access challenging locations.

“Drones are valuable when observing hard-to-reach infrastructure, such as bridges, deep culverts, tunnels and tall steel towers,” said Chris Gust, director-Bridge Inspection, Engineering.

George Otis Jr. uses drone to inspect Benicia-Martinez Bridge. | M

George Otis Jr., bridge inspector, Engineering, pilots a drone to aid in inspecting California’s Benicia-Martinez Bridge.

The technology also has security applications: more than 60 Union Pacific special agents use drones to monitor suspicious or criminal activity around the network. The drones’ high-resolution cameras can identify security concerns or potential safety risks, such as trespassers on railroad property or open container doors.

“These devices enable agents to monitor specific areas from a new perspective and with real-time information,” Watts said.

Since Union Pacific implemented its drone program in 2015, the technology has continued to significantly improve.

Today, the railroad is exploring opportunities to develop autonomous drones that can identify broken rails and other potential risks in rail yards. Soon, drone footage also may be used to produce 3D images, supporting more comprehensive inspections.

“As we incorporate new features and capabilities, we continue to revolutionize how we deploy drones on our railroad,” Watts said. “They’re an invaluable tool for our teams.” 

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