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Central Railway uses drones to survey treacherous terrain

The recent spate of derailments and landslips around railway lines causing accidents and delays has prompted the railways to adopt new technology to pre-empt and prevent disasters.

Last week, Central Railway officials used a drone fitted with camera to record pictures and video of the surrounding areas of a two-kilometre length of track near Monkey Hill, Lonavala, the site where a boulder fell on the LTT–Hubli Express, punching a hole through the roof and injuring three passengers. The idea is to spot and neutralise any vulnerabilities and threats from the terrain, like cracks in boulders or loose soil, and so on.

This is the first such aerial survey by Indian Railways. Navin Bhanushali, owner of Miniphoto, a Mumbai-based company, said he had approached the CR’s General Manager after the incident of the boulder crashing through the Hubli Express, and proposed that he helped them with a survey. The drone, which Miniphoto provided and operated, spent three hours taking several flights down the length of the line. It flew at around 150 metres — roughly the height of a 40-storey building — close enough for its cameras to pick up details in the terrain.

Sunil Udasi, Chief PRO, CR, said, “The drone gave us a view of some locations which cannot be seen with the naked eye.” Each run cost Central Railway ₹50,000, which, officials say, is a worthwhile investment considering that one basic railway coach costs upwards of a crore. “We don’t want to take any risk with the lives of passengers,” a senior CR official said. “We are taking all possible precautions to safeguard our trains and passengers.”

CR has sent the footage to IIT-Bombay and the Indian Railways organisation RDSO (Research Designs & Standards Organisation), and hopes to get inputs from them on protection and prevention measures. CR plans to do such drone surveys every year before the start of the monsoon, so that preventative maintenance can happen before the rains.

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