Drones Flying High at NJ TRANSIT

Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird! No, it’s a plane! No, it’s an aerial drone and it’s accomplishing a lot of work for NJ TRANSIT!

The agency’s drone program is led by Director of Radio Systems Planning & Support Andrew Schwartz. An instrument-rated manned airplane pilot and amateur photographer, Andrew combined those two hobbies when he began experimenting with drones in 2016 before recognizing their commercial applications.

“When I started operating my first personal drone, the FAA was still establishing flight rules for drones,” said Andrew. “After the FAA created rules regarding commercial operation of drones, I took a test and was granted a remote pilot certificate for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS).”

Andrew’s primary job at NJ TRANSIT focuses on radio communications and closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems. As he began reading about cell phone companies using drones to inspect their radio towers, he wondered if NJ TRANSIT could benefit from them. After performing a successful test inspection with his personal drone at one of the agency’s radio tower sites, he showed the concept to his boss and the drone program took off.

“Our expanding aerial drone program is helping the Corporation accelerate equipment and infrastructure inspections, expedite repair work, assist with emergency management operations, and provide both photo and video documentation, all while reducing costs and safety risks,” said NJ TRANSIT Chief Information and Digital Officer Lookman Fazal.

NJ TRANSIT purchased its first drone in January 2017, but the fleet has since grown to four drones – three multi-rotor drones and one fixed-wing drone. None of these commercial drones are available at big-box stores. They’re highly specialized and require a licensed UAS pilot to be on site during commercial drone operations. In many cases, flight plans must be coordinated with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), particularly when operating near commercial airports.

Safety and Cost Savings

Prior to the availability of drones, NJ TRANSIT hired radio tower inspection specialists at significant cost to climb, inspect and repair the agency’s large system of more than 50 radio towers and well over 100 antennas throughout New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. The move to drone inspections ultimately eliminated the safety risks and generated a great return on investment. In fact, during a drone survey of Newark Draw Bridge, which carries the Morris & Essex Lines and an electrified catenary system over the Passaic River, NJ TRANSIT estimates it saved approximately $30,000 by eliminating the need for a crane and crane crew, bridge climbers, and boat rescue personnel below the bridge. It also eliminated the need to shut down power in the overhead catenary wires, which would have affected rail service.

“We used a drone after Hurricane Ida, flying over inaccessible areas to quickly assess storm damage on the railroad, identify repair needs, and plan for a faster rail service recovery,” added Andrew. “We also did an overhead assessment of one of our bus garages to identify storm damage on the roof, which accelerated the inspection process, a cost analysis and repairs.”

Multipurpose Drone Fleet

NJ TRANSIT’s Enterprise-class drones are primarily used for infrastructure inspections. They can operate close to objects, including radio towers, high voltage lines and other structures without interference.

“The drones are equipped with different cameras and lenses based on the nature of the job they are performing,” said Andrew. “In addition to different zoom capabilities, we have a thermal camera that can be used to identify unusual heat patterns in the catenary system or a transformer, or can be used for search and rescue operations to find a lost person in an isolated area.

“Another drone is equipped with a higher resolution camera used for mapping purposes, flying in a grid pattern while capturing hundreds of images. NJ TRANSIT’s Geographic Information System (GIS) group then takes the images and stitches them together into high-resolution maps that can be used for damage assessments, field training, and other purposes.

Additionally, one drone is rigged with a drop device. This was recently tested during an emergency drill, safely dropping a lifesaving device into the water during a simulated water rescue along the River LINE. Other uses include real estate mapping, examination of abandoned railroad rights-of-way, and railroad employee training.

The agency’s multi-rotor drones can only operate as far as the drone pilot can see the aircraft. The most recent acquisition – a fixed-wing drone with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities – allows “beyond visual line-of-sight flying,” which requires special certification from the FAA. It will primarily be used for large, long-distance mapping missions and inspections and currently requires “downrange observers” to monitor the craft when it is out of the sight of the drone pilot. With a six-foot, six-inch wingspan, it has vertical and horizontal flight capabilities, and is equipped with a specialized camera, artificial intelligence and a beacon detection system that identifies and automatically evades airborne objects around it, much like a commercial aircraft.

While the multi-rotor drones can fly for approximately 30 minutes before requiring a fresh battery, the fixed-wing aircraft can fly up to one hour and 30 minutes.

Aerial Operations and Training

With a growing number of requests for assistance from the drone program, NJ TRANSIT is training more UAS pilots.

“We have three more people who are training to join the program,” said Andrew. “All work in the Unified Communications group within the Information Technology Department. One is already a licensed manned pilot. A second already has a drone license and a third is working on one.

“There are a number of factors involved in the training process. Drone pilots must know how to assess the weather, file flight plans, understand the intricacies of operating in FAA-controlled airspace, and be aware of temporary flight restrictions, such as Presidential visits,” said Andrew. “We also conduct advance site evaluations before a drone is used, identifying any potential objects we may encounter during a flight. Drone pilots also need to know how and when to communicate with air traffic controllers, particularly near major airports.”

Similar to aircraft pilots, drone pilots also perform pre-flight inspections to ensure safe operation of the aircraft, including inspections of airframes, rotor systems, propellers, wings, tails, and the battery system.

Future Drone Pilots

Andrew is developing a unique partnership with Warren County Community College, which has a nationally recognized drone workforce development program. Students at the school have access to a UAS laboratory, an outdoor Flight Training Center, launch & recovery areas for fixed-wing aircraft, and a custom-designed drone racing course. The students learn how to fly and maintain the drones they are operating.

“We’re already discussing things we can work together on, including cross-training, internships and general drone operations,” said Andrew.

So now you know NJ TRANSIT is a lot more than trains, buses, and light rail and Access Link vehicles. The next time you see or hear something flying overhead along our system, it may be one of our drones!

 

Andrew Schwartz launches a drone for an aerial assessment in Secaucus.