Recently our company, LiDAR USA was asked to scan 1,000 miles of railway outside the US. In this short article I would like to share the non-technical considerations of the project, mostly related to working projects outside of the U.S., as well as on a rail system.
Meeting Equipment Requirements and Limitations. Providing clean, reliable power daily seems so simple. With ScanLook we typically use a marine battery (12V 60AH). While this would seem to be a very simple solution, keep in mind that batteries differ between countries and so do battery chargers. Also, be prepared for a multitude of electrical adapters, especially in the hotel room.
You also need to know the systems durability and tolerances regarding temperature, dust, and sensitivity to sudden movement. We experienced a very rough ride nearly all of the time, extreme amounts of dust (zero visibility), and heat from 35 to 50C. The temperature just above the rails would often be over 50C and would emit a lot of heat upward toward ScanLook. This was a concern but never a problem.
Performing Setup and Removal. For this project we had to completely strip all equipment from the rail car each evening and start anew each day. In our case, it was roughly 30 minutes from arrival until we were ready to go. This is important if you are trying to slip into a busy rail schedule where everything is highly regulated.
Traveling Back and Forth. On a small business like ours, this can be very frustrating. Getting the proper paperwork for us (i.e. Visas) and for the instruments is not a quick process. Allow six weeks as a minimum for this process and be prepared to be very confused.
Arranging Documentation and Paperwork. When traveling outside the US with expensive equipment you must have either a CARNET or some other supporting documentation that allows you to enter and exit each country. The US Government actually has an agency (export.gov and trade.gov) set up to help US businesses do this very thing. I would emphasize you cannot over prepare in this area. As the instrument owner, you do not want to lose possession of your system. You may need to hire a Custom Broker to facilitate passing Customs in the foreign country. Consider this an expense to give you peace of mind. Letters of invitation for the Consulate may also be required. You will also need to know the HS code and Export Controls Classification numbers for everything you ship.
Preparing Shipping and Packaging. Of course, your instruments should be easy to ship and arrive safe and secure. ScanLook fits in a single Pelican case and so far it has been shipped all over without incident. We simply check ScanLook in as extra luggage. That adds around $100 each way but at least we know it arrives when we arrive. Dont watch the shipping monitors in baggage your Fragile stickers are completely ignored! Alternatively, you can hire a local freight forwarder.
Language and Communication. If you do not speak the native language, do not expect that you will find anybody in your project area that will understand English. It is best to have a very reliable point of contact that is fluent in both languages that can best represent your interest.
Setting Base Stations and Control. Be sure that everybody knows the game plan for each day. Each base station operator should demonstrate their ability to accurately set the station up. This includes making sure the sampling rate is set as desired and ensuring that there is sufficient storage space for the duration of collection. They should also know how to get to the point, when to be there, be told when to leave, record the instrument height, etc. Records are imperative here. Do not assume the operators know to seek out open sky areas. They tend to gravitate towards a comfortable shade tree.
Scanning Railway and Assets. Rail is not even remotely similar to roadway scanning. On the rail, it seems you have to stop at many switches, wait for authorization, move ahead a few hundred meters and wait for authorization to proceed again. It is very time consuming. If you do not have good communication because of language barriers and customs, it quickly becomes a very trying experience. You are never sure if you should turn the scanner off, pause, or leave it running.
Proper preparation for working outside the US can lead to a win-win situation for everybody and lack thereof can lead to a financial loss. Make your preparations carefully. Avoid learning the hard way if at all possible.