Infrabel, the national rail infrastructure company, has begun testing the use of drones to help combat cable theft. The first test took place this week, on a stretch of railway between Charleroi and Mariembourg – a distance of about 42km. The drone flew at a height of 150m at around 21.00.
The drone has a wing-span of 3.3m, carries an infrared camera to see at night, and has a maximum flying time of 30 minutes. The drone flies according to a computer-planned route using GPS coordinates, although it can be switched to manual control once it is within sight of the operator.
The plan is to use the drone to cover large sections of track and allow operators to report acts of cable theft to police giving an exact location. In normal circumstances, drones cannot be operated out of sight of the operator other than by police, customs and other official agencies, but this test was given an exemption by the directorate-general in charge of Belgium’s air traffic. Once a new law comes into force covering the use of drones, Infrabel intends to fly out a drone about three or four times a month.
Incidents of cable theft numbered 261 in the first ten months of this year, with 83 in October alone. The thefts, as well as being costly, lead to serious delays in train times – an average of ten hours a day in total during October.
The latest wave of thefts started in the area around Charleroi and Liege, but has since moved towards Flanders. Police say the thefts are the work of gangs from Eastern Europe.