What’s a drone train?

A drone train is a hybrid species: a cross between a train and a drone whose testing seems top secret and whose name means nothing to neophytes. You’ll recall that a drone is an object that travels by land, air or sea in a quasi-autonomous manner via remote control. What we call a drone train in the newspapers is nothing more than an autonomous train. It’s just like the autonomous subways that are found in many large French cities. France is, by the way, the 1st country in the world to employ driverless subways. In fact, it was the city of Lille who welcomed the first self-driving subway in 1983. The line consisted of 73 stations, which was revolutionary at the time…  

Autonomous rail transport, where are we 16 years later?

The first autonomous train tests took place in April 2019 in the Parisian metro area. But it was only in July of the same year that the SNCF announced this test phase. Consisting of only two cars and tested on a 4 km section of track between Val de Marne and Essonne, the goal of the testing was to detect any technical problems from the control station located in Essonne. The project proved to be successful since the SNCF recently communicated that “this successful experiment has demonstrated the technical feasibility of remote-controled rail”.  

Could we soon be using 100% autonomous trains?

The project, although successful, is not intended to make trains autonomous in the short term. The main objective is to use remote control as a backup solution in the event of a high-risk situation or known problems. Taking control of a train remotely must be a priority in the coming years in light of the Grand Paris project. In fact, this solution could allow for:
  • facilitating the conductor’s maneuvers
  • enjoying more regular and punctual service through “harmonized traffic and optimized speed
  • ensuring light service (a new term for short lines) for SNCF freight
  • and lastly, for reducing energy consumption.

Drone trains: cutting-edge innovation

Remote control of trains is now possible in the same way as it is for subways. Generally covering a longer distance, the project had long been dismissed for safety reasons. However, for this exercise, cameras were installed in the cars in order to guide the conductor remotely through acceleration or braking maneuvers. Additionally, the transmission of data between the cars and the operating center is transmitted by satellite via a cellular network. This drone train is the result of a long-term effort which has allowed collaboration between companies in the technology and transportation sectors, including:
  • SNCF
  • Railenium, a technological research institute in the railway sector based in Valenciennes (Nord),
  • Actia (manufacturer of electronic systems)
  • CNES (National Centre for Space Studies)
  • Thales (technology company)

Why the interest in drone trains?

Because this this project promises to be the transportation of tomorrow! It combines all the advantages of a smart city transportation system: autonomy, ecology, speed and convenience. What’s more, we predict that nearly 2/3 of the population will live in cities in 2050. Planning urban spaces, and consequently travel, therefore becomes more than a priority, but an urgent need for defenders of the smart city. However, according to Wavestone (consulting company), the distance between home and work has increased by 63% over the last thirty years.   It’s actually the outskirts of cities which are critical areas raising various concerns (at-risk areas, territorial development, conservation, etc.). Travel within urban areas is just as important as travel to city centers. We hope these trains will be operational by 2025, after the new test phase which is scheduled for 2023.   To read: Smartphone, a new transportation ticket