BNSF drone

Air Robot's AR180 is one of the drones BNSF Railway has been authorized by federal authorities to use to patrol track and railroad property.

BNSF Railway Co. has received approval to use remotely controlled flying drones to assist in the inspection of railroad infrastructure and operations.

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles is intended to allow BNSF to maximize safety in railroad operations, the company said, but it isn't yet specifying how and where they'll be used.

BNSF did say it will use the drones, equipped with cameras, to inspect track and monitor trains. Other applications will be investigated.

The nation's second-largest carrier has a major presence in Sioux City, as well as other areas of the tri-state region.

BNSF asked the Federal Aviation Administration three years ago for permission. It is authorized to operate the AirRobot AR180, a quad-rotor that weighs about 11 pounds; the AirRobot AR200, a hex-rotor that weighs about 19 pounds; and the 3D Robotics Spektre Industrial Multi-Rotor Aerial Vehicle, a quad-rotor of about 10.5 pounds, to operate over land owned or controlled by the railroad.

The drones will be allowed to fly no higher than 400 feet and no faster than 50 knots, and within the line of sight of an observer on the ground.

"The use of UAVs does not, however, eliminate the need for in-person visual inspections required by the Federal Railroad Administration," said BNSF spokeswoman Roxanne Butler in an email. Railroad safety inspectors typically patrol tracks in pickup trucks equipped to run on rails.

"Instead, this new approval allows BNSF to supplement those inspections with aerial surveillance, resulting in safer inspection procedures for BNSF personnel, as well as a safer and more efficient railroad network," Butler said. "The approval also contains several operating requirements, including a licensing requirement for operators and that only personnel specifically authorized by BNSF be permitted to use this technology at low altitude on BNSF property."

So far, BNSF is the only railroad that has sought this FAA authority, according to Railway Age, a trade publication.

In comments filed on BNSF's petition, the National Agricultural Aviation Association, which represents commercial applicators, requested several restrictions on the railroad's drone operation to protect their members from collisions.

The FAA incorporated some into BNSF's exemption from FAA's standing rules against the commercial use of unmanned aerial systems. FAA is overdue in reviewing and updating those rules. In the meantime, the agency has streamlined applications for exemptions.

Among the conditions, the drone must always yield right-of-way to manned aircraft.

One unnamed person commented that he had no issues with BNSF's proposed operations as long it was not used to conduct surveillance on BSNF’s employees.

It's also clear the new technology is setting up competition between union-represented crafts on the railroad.

Railway Age reported an unnamed official of the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers said SMART conductors could have claimed work associated with BNSF drone operations, but lost the opportunity when they voted down an agreement by a SMART regional council and BNSF last year that would have allowed one employee to operate a train.

That proposed contract also addressed personnel issues associated with Positive Train Control, the wireless remote train management system required by the federal government, but not yet fully implemented. The proposed agreement specifically mentioned drones as within the scope of work reserved for SMART-represented conductors, Railway Age reported.

That contract would have covered Nebraska operations, among other states. Union members defeated the proposal by a 5 to 1 margin last year.

SMART has labor contracts in place requiring two-person crews, but those contracts are nearing expiration and new contract negotiations are supposed to be underway. Some state legislatures have addressed the number of people working train crews, as well, and SMART-favored federal legislation, now blocked by Republicans.

Railway Age also reported that the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen has a clause in its agreements with BNSF to capture remote-control work outside yards and terminals should remote-control operations be expanded.

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