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FAA Approves Drones Flying Out of Sight to Check Railroad Tracks

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation receives waiver to use drones to inspect state’s rail network

Liz Hughes

December 18, 2023

1 Min Read
The MassDOT Aeronautics Drone Operation team will be able to capture more data more efficiently, providing images such as this infrared depiction
The MassDOT Aeronautics Drone Operation team will be able to capture more data more efficiently, providing images such as this infrared depiction, above, of the MBTA Orange Line’s Wellington Station in Medford, MA.MassDOT

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved a large-scale waiver for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to use drones to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), allowing it to fly uncrewed aircraft over the state’s rail network for inspections. 

MassDOT’s Drone Operations Program uses drones to collect data on more than 1,000 miles of track when monitoring rail safety by checking for everything from flood and storm damage to vegetation encroachment.

The agency’s Aeronautics department partnered with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and the MITRE Corp to take what it calls a “blended performance-based approach, providing flexibility to adjust operations according to variations in factors such as geography, urban density or airspace.”

While remote drone operators will rely on a visual observer for higher altitude flights at more than 50 feet and as high as 400 feet above obstructions, the BVLOS will be used for drone flights 50 feet above rail lines or up to 50 feet above obstructions, the agency said. 

“MassDOT Aeronautics has received a special obstruction shielding waiver, with which drones can fly BVLOS without the need for visual observers,” MassDOT said. “This blended, flexible approach to operations will allow MassDOT Aeronautics to perform its mission more efficiently across a variety of landscapes with rail lines.”

Related:Michigan to Boost Drone Development Through New Initiative

Scott Uebelhart, chief scientist of MassDOT’s Aeronautics Advanced Aviation Technologies Group’s chief scientist said the waiver also lays the groundwork for “sensor systems and data solutions that will integrate drones and Advanced Air Mobility passenger vehicles such as electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft into ‘highways in the sky.’”

About the Author(s)

Liz Hughes

Editor, IoT World Today, IoT World Today

Liz Hughes is an award-winning digital media editor with more than two decades of experience in newspaper, magazine and online media industries. 

A proven digital media strategist and editor, Liz has produced content and offered editorial support and leadership for a variety of web publications, including Fast Company, NBC Boston, Street Fight, QuinStreet, WTWH Media, AOL/Patch Media and Design News.

A skilled social media strategist experienced in developing and maintaining an audience across multiple platforms and brands, Liz also enjoys sharing her knowledge and expertise to help businesses small and large.

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