RailPod Looks to Improve Rail Safety With Drones

America’s intricate railroads are among its critical infrastructure pieces, providing support to its massive economy by moving people and goods efficiently.

But here’s a sobering statistic.

Each day, on average, there are two railway derailments, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). These derailments, often caused by poor track conditions, lead to delays in schedule and loss of property – often resulting in millions of dollars in damages.

RailPod hopes to make a difference.

rail pod

The Boston-based startup has a patented inspection system which could make railway infrastructure safer and cheaper to maintain, operate, and monitor through the use of its automated ‘inspection’ drones. RailPod drones perform daily track inspections with the help of advanced sensor technology and a cloud-based data processing service, providing real-time information to operators about track conditions to help them make timely decisions.

“RailPod offers a flexible platform which can do different types of inspection for railroads, with or without human interference,” said RailPod CEO Brendan English.

“Today, since the cost of inspection is labor intensive, frequent inspection means more manpower and higher costs. Our goal is to provide railroads and inspectors with a simple tool to increase the frequency and efficiency of inspection, get a better dataset, and ultimately lower the cost of maintenance.”

Brendan EnglishToday, railroads depend significantly on human diligence for track inspection.

Considering the nation has more than 170,000 miles of railroad track, one can only imagine the amount of manpower and money needed for thorough inspection. For instance, track geometry cars manned by 3 to 5 people run up and down tracks daily or several times a week, collecting data using laser and vision systems. Sometimes, those cars are accompanied by track inspectors on foot looking for simple faults such as broken/missing cross ties or fasteners. During heavy rains, inspectors need to make sure the ballast underneath rails is not washed out. Such issues, if left unattended, could lead to train derailment.

Once a fault or issue is identified, a maintenance crew is physically deployed to correct the problem. These maintenance corrections take time, causing delays and potentially large penalties for the railroad operator due to loss of productivity or other contracted stipulations between the industry and its customers.

English, a veteran Armed Forces helicopter pilot, first became interested in railroads after observing the complex network from the cockpit. He began researching track safety in 2009, and put together his research for investors. It took another few years before the startup took off in 2013 after it won the Diamond Award and a $100,000 grant from MassChallenge. The following year, the startup raised another $2.5 million from investors, according to Crunchbase.

rail workerRailPod’s appeal lies in its ability to offer cost effective inspection robots and data as a service to ensure the safety of railroad inspectors while providing much needed big data to the multi-billion dollar track inspection industry. Cloud Technology Partners helped RailPod build a scalable IoT solution capable of ingesting real-time and batched data.

By leveraging IOT technologies, RailPod is able to ingest streaming and batch data from inspection drones to make timely and better-informed decisions for their customers.

Today, RailPod has 10 employees and its platform is being tested by several railroads in the US and Canada,

“We are in the production phase of our product, which is being manufactured and shipped to our clients,” he said. “Our vision is to create a product that delivers global railroad efficiency, and as we grow, we create a global dataset and real-time analytics to help predict maintenance issues and prevent train derailments.”

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