PNT and MiFi Allow Drones to Inspect Railroads

December 11, 2017
Union Pacific develops new drone technology that solves the GPS gap

Perspective Navigation Technology (PNT) has answered a challenge that the Union Pacific Railroad and other industries that work in and around heavy metal structures encounter.

The UP railroad was using drones guided by GPS technology to inspect bridges but found that the GPS signals between the drone and the operator were getting distorted or cut by the steel structures.

Ed Adelman, a 25-year railroad industry veteran who is now in charge of Union Pacific's operating safety team, discovered the problem while working with Union Pacific bridge inspectors on a railroad bridge in Blair, Nebraska, 20 miles north of Omaha. As the drone they were evaluating flew beneath the bridge, it lost GPS signal, causing the aircraft to lose track of its location, nearly plopping into the depths of the Missouri River.

Adelman decided to build a team that ultimately developed Perspective Navigation Technology (PNT), which enables the railroad to fly drones in places without GPS coverage, such as within or under that large metal bridge or in the depths of long culverts.

PNT is the first step toward a technology that will change the very nature of how Union Pacific inspects its infrastructure. It will enable autonomous drones – drones that literally fly themselves. Soon, Union Pacific's army of nearly 600 bridge inspectors will be able to inspect the railroad's more than 18,000 bridges while their steel-toed boots remain safely planted on the ground.

Union Pacific's team of drone operators, computer and software engineers have been working non-stop for the last four months to make autonomous drone use in the railroad industry a reality. Read about their efforts to make their railroad fly in How America's Top Railroad Learns to Fly.