Harsh Pilbara heavy haul rail conditions puts PANDOSCOPE® to the test

Apr 24, 2020 | Compaction Control, Insitutek, Rail Formation & Ballast Condition Assessment, Soil & Site Investigation

PANDA Instrumented DCP testing

There is nothing like jumping in at the deep end! 

With buy in from Fortescue Metals Group, BHP and Rio Tinto, we brought together our supply partner, Sol Solution from France, and the extreme conditions of deep fouled ballast and the Pilbara climate to test to see how the PANDOSCOPE® would operate. Suffice to say, the outcomes were very positive and we have subsequently started our first projects using the PANDOSCOPE® in Australia. 

So what is the PANDOSCOPE®?  

The PANDOSCOPE® is a coupling of the PANDA® Instrumented Dynamic Cone Penetrometer (DCP) (tip resistance vs depth profile) and Geoendoscopy (down the hole imagery).  

How is the PANDOSCOPE® used in rail applications? 

The PANDOSCOPE® is as a non-destructive rail track ballast and formation condition assessment method typically used when planning track maintenance and renewal. 

In rail applications, the PANDOSCOPE® measures geotechnical aspects of the track bed and can provide the following outcomes: 

  • Layer characterisation for ballast and formation (identification, thickness, water content (qualitative), estimation of the soil grain size distribution and ballast condition (ballast fouling) assessment) 
  • Mechanical information: cone resistance (direct measurement) or CBR or other parameters with correlations 

What was the purpose of the initial trials? 

To understand the ballast and formation condition, the miners were looking to evaluate the PANDOSCOPE® against the current methods of pot holing, DCP testing, visual observation and sampling, as well as Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) data. 

Heavy haul iron ore rail in the Pilbara are typically operational 24/7. Hence, the miners really wanted to understand if it was possible to test between trains working under lookout protection. 

From our own perspective, we wanted to understand how the PANDOSCOPE® would stand up to the extreme conditions of deep fouled ballast and the Pilbara climate. 

What have we learned from our PANDOSCOPE® work in the Pilbara so far? 

Rio Tinto, BHP and Fortescue Metals Group all have exceptionally high levels of safety requirements so one breakthrough was approval to test between trains working under lookout protection.  

One of the things we love about working with Sol Solution, our supply partner, is that innovation is baked in their corporate blood. Every year, more than 10% of their turnover is allocated to R&D. In our initial trials, for example, we discovered that the fouled ballast could be consistently stiffer over greater depths than many other heavy haul and passenger networks we had worked on in Europe, the Americas and Asia. Within a few weeks of the initial trials, the R&D team had come up with innovative solutions to the practical issues we had experienced and in subsequent projects in the Pilbara, these have proved very effective. 

Other highlights for discussions with our clients include: 

  • No destabilisation / disturbance of the track which is important if renewal works are delayed or do not proceed 
  • Cost effective methodology with reduced cost per hole compared to conventional approaches like potholing and reduced head count on site. For remote site working, this also means less flights and accommodation are required. 
  • Better informed decision making 

We look forward to bringing this impressive PANDOSCOPE® testing approach to a wider audience, helping our clients get clear insight on what’s going on below the surface so they can make well informed decisions in a timely manner.

Forensic analysis of pavements is one example. Investigation into the walls of underground structures (like tunnels) is another.

For more information on how the PANDOSCOPE® could benefit you, visit our website.

Fortescue Metals Group is a global leader in the iron ore industry, with a unique culture, innovation and industry-leading development of world class infrastructure and mining assets in the Pilbara, Western Australia.  

Rio Tinto mines metals, producing materials essential to human progress. These include iron ore for steel, aluminium for cars and smartphones. Copper for wind turbines, electric cars and the pipes that bring water to our home, borates hat help crops grow and titanium for paint. Our focus was their iron ore operations. 

BHP is a world-leading resources company who extract and process minerals, oil and gas primarily in Australia and the Americas. Our focus was their iron ore operations in the Pilbara. 

Traditional Potholing Approach 
PANDA® Instrumented DCP testing 
 PANDA® Instrumented DCP testing 
PANDA® Instrumented DCP testing using the manual accelerated hammering column
Geoendoscope with working under look-out protection
Precisely located high quality imagery from down the hole 
Sample PANDOSCOPE® Report 


The PANDA probe is giving us and the construction team very useful insight with immediate feedback on the compaction being achieved on a major new rail construction project in QLD. We have two teams working daily using PANDA DCP’s and the Automatic Hammer on the rail formation, enabling real time decision making with confidence, based on the highly repeatable results.

Federico Velasquez

Senior Geotechnical Engineer, CMW GeoSciences

We purchased a PANDA 2 machine after using one from another laboratory. The information obtained has saved money on numerous jobs. It is reasonably priced and the after-market service has been great. Highly recommend using Insitutek.

Brett McDonald

Department of Transport and Main Roads, QLD

I felt the training was very thorough. If anyone doesn’t know how to use a PANDA after that session, they shouldn’t be using one at all.

Sam Bamford

Laboratory Division Manager, Protest Engineering

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