In May 2014 it was announced that BNSF would be one of three companies to partner with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the Pathfinder Program, a public-private partnership designed to help the FAA determine if and how to safely expand unmanned aircraft operations in the United States. BNSF was tasked with exploring the challenges of using long range drones to inspect their rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas.
Todd Graetz has 15 years of experience with advanced technology including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV)/Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), wireless and fiber optic systems, telecom operations, and transportation communications. He is a member of the FAA's Drone Advisory Committee and its UAS Identification and Tracking Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC). He is also an active private pilot and UAS operator.
DTJ: Thanks for taking the time to interview today. To start off, can you tell us about BNSF's role in the Pathfinder Program?
Mr. Graetz: BNSF's role in the Pathfinder Program, which started in mid-2015, has been focused solely on how a commercial entity could operate an unmanned aircraft--also known as a drone--over long distances, well beyond the line of sight of the operator.
We were given that charge because out of a great number of organizations that may have an interest in that research, we bring some key elements to the table. First and foremost is our safety focus. The FAA knows we are going to be a safe operator and a safe partner. Second is our infrastructure and right of way, which creates a known, predictable flight path for the efforts.
We kicked off the program in 2015 and we've had multiple milestones since then. In 2015, we developed the safety case and created the structure so that we could prove to both our research partner at the FAA and the industry as a whole that this can be done in North America, in the continental United States, it can be done in lightly populated areas, and it can be done in a safe manner. And we did so working with another organization, In-situ, a subsidiary of Boeing. We worked with their ScanEagle system and our resources, and we deployed the first long-range beyond line of sight civil operation ever in the lower 48 states.
The next step after proving we could fly was to start talking about rail specific systems. That includes rail specific aircraft, sensors, software and systems--and that's where the program evolved in 2016 and into 2017. We started creating and/or co-developing a number of different technologies and systems that allowed us to perform the operation in a way and means that was conducive to railway operations. Some of the things we needed were an aircraft that didn't require a runway or some kind of launcher, and sensors that have the precision and the capability to see small items on the right of way whether that be small breaks in the rail or changes in tie condition or ballast. We needed highly sensitive sensors and then we needed a way to analyze that data.
Our role as the Beyond Visual Line of Sight Pathfinder with the FAA was focused on the flight technology, procedures and rules, etc., and how can this be done in a safe manner--that's been the guiding focus of the partnership since day one and it remains as our partnership with the FAA continues. So we explored how to bring this to fruition and then more importantly, how do our efforts benefit the other railroads, how do our efforts benefit other linear asset operators such as pipelines and powerlines--and that's our role.
DTJ: Over course of the program, how has the technology evolved?
Mr. Graetz: Back in 2015, if we could have just gone and used the standard military technology, we would have been a lot further down the road. But, unfortunately none of that met our needs of precision. We're not at high altitude and we're not looking around for people moving on the ground, we're at low altitude and we're looking at something that's very small on the right of way so that required a lot of innovation.
DTJ: And how does a drone inspection compare to inspections performed by humans?
Mr. Graetz: We have a very high-quality maintenance program at BNSF. In many cases, we exceed the requirements given to us by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), so that puts a challenge on anything new whether it's drones, automated geocars, or things we put on locomotives--we have to be better than human or more importantly, we have to provide the human with information that they otherwise couldn't easily get for themselves. So that takes you to a level where you have to be better, in many cases, than either the human eye or better than human recognition.
The whole technology has been focused on how to supplement what we are doing. We want to see how to give our humans tools...