There is no doubt that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)— more commonly known as drones — are disrupting traditional business models and reshaping operational processes across industries, from agriculture to telecommunications. Once relegated to the realm of entertainment and playthings, drones have now demonstrated an almost unparalleled value when it comes to assisting industries that manage large numbers of geographically dispersed assets.
Drones are most commonly referred to as UAVs, which refers to the aircraft itself. UAVs are a component of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS), which includes the UAV and the command, control and communications systems that accompany it.
Their ability to help manage large numbers of geographically dispersed assets means that drones especially benefit the telecom industry, which — in response to the world’s growing hunger for data and connectivity — is working feverishly to maintain, upgrade and expand critical network infrastructure. Drone technology can provide the necessary high-quality data needed to execute to these complex, large-scale infrastructure projects.
Previously, companies had to rely on collecting this information from the ground, which could be inaccurate, risky and time-consuming. By equipping drones with high-resolution imaging, light detection and ranging (lidar), video capabilities or a combination of them — along with GPS, avoidance detection and advanced command and control systems — companies can collect comprehensive, high-quality information about their systems, and with it, present a more accurate picture of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
Advances Driving Digitization
By encouraging the digitization of infrastructure, drone technology is upending how companies approach asset management. Incredible advances in photogrammetry and imaging technology made possible by laser-based profiling known as lidar allows the UAV to collect high-resolution images of telecom and utility assets from incredible perspectives that shine a light on infrastructure in ways never seen before.
It is no secret that UAS flights provide a slew of benefits: Drones allow users to conduct more frequent inspections from improved vantage points more quickly and more safely than ever before. In doing so, UAS flights can collect enormous amounts of data that can be analyzed to assess asset health, directly improving asset management, reliability and resilience while reducing costs. And because drones are relatively unobtrusive, they can reduce the effect of inspections on landowners.
The potential for drones keeps growing. In December 2018, Ameren, the St. Louis-based energy company, completed a nonstop 60-mile drone flight over its transmission lines. This first-of-its-kind, long-range beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flight demonstrates the technology’s promise of effective, efficient monitoring of distributed assets, particularly in remote and hard-to-access areas.
Data Makes Us Better
These advances in technology have extended into the data processing side, which can provide an immersive data experience that can provide users with even greater comprehension.
The pixel of each high-resolution image captured by the drone bears an X, Y and Z coordinate that is geo-referenced to a ground control point (GCP). GCPs — defined as points on the surface of the earth with known coordinates that can be used to geo-reference Landsat Level-1 data — serve as a reference to the world. These images are then stitched together to create optimal 360-degree spherical panoramas.
From there, geo-coding, filtering and processing can be used to produce a “point cloud” — essentially a set of data points in space rendered in a computer-consumable format. This information can be paired with cloud-based software to collect, process, manage and analyze data.
For example, data could be run through a variety of engineering, visualization and data analytics applications — such as immersive 3-D geographic information system (GIS) environments — where elements can be measured; computer-aided drafting programs such as AutoCAD and other structural analysis software; artificial intelligence and machine learning; and asset-management programs such as program management, which is powered by the ASSET360 cloud-based data analytics platform, available through Atonix Digital, Black & Veatch’s software subsidiary.
With the proliferation of handheld mobile devices, this digital world can be displayed right in the palm of a hand and shared instantly with the swipe of a finger. This data can then be used for multiple purposes — one photo of a tower can be used for asset inventory, structural work, line of sight and planning, along with as-builts, data-driven business cases and insurance documentation. By capturing reality, unproductive guesswork is put to rest and new value streams are generated. Plus, this information is well-positioned to be incorporated into machine learning applications. For example, machine learning could be applied to a library of photos to filter, classify and prioritize damaged assets.
Eversource Benefits from Drone Technology
Drone technology is already common in the electric utility industry. According to Black & Veatch’s “2018 Strategic Directions: Electric Report” survey, an annual survey of electric utility leaders, 63 percent of respondents use the technology to conduct site surveys. The “2019 Strategic Directions: Smart Utilities Report” also dives deep into how utilities across the board are adding next-generation advances to enhance operational efficiencies, customer engagement and network resilience in a constantly changing energy ecosystem.
Eversource Energy recently experienced the benefits of drone technology, partnering with Black & Veatch to incorporate the technology in large-program workflows. As the largest energy provider in New England, Eversource serves more than 3.6 million electric and natural gas customers in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
To expand access and reliability and build resilience, the utility is working to increase bandwidth in its operating area by building a 450-MHz digital mobile radio system network across the state of Connecticut. The utility hired Black & Veatch to provide engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) services on the project, which involves about 65 tower sites that cover 95 percent of the utility’s operating territory.
Tasked with this massive digital data capture project, Black & Veatch integrated the use of drones paired with high-resolution photogrammetry into its tower assessments to help ensure accurate, efficient and timely surveys.
After flying the drones, Black & Veatch created 3-D models from the data it collected. To manage, maintain, collaborate and visualize this complex data, Black & Veatch relied on a suite of software offered by Atonix Digital and powered by the ASSET360 cloud-based analytics platform, which simplifies asset management by consolidating data from a variety of sources into a single point of reference.
The work is ongoing, and successful missions completed in Phase 1 will result in the data being actively infused into the EPC workflows for the multiyear project. These early project successes are stimulating a conversation about how the technology can continue to be used in Phase 2 in various applications, for everything from testing to as-built drawings printed in 3-D. These efficiencies motivate innovative thinking across the board.
The benefits of drone technology are undeniable, as companies continue to validate the integration of drones into day-to-day activities. Two areas where drones have proved their unparalleled value are in synchronizing and sharing data across multiple sources and offering presentation reporting to justify investment.
Telecom and utility companies alike will find advantages in one of the major benefits of drone data collection — the promise of accelerated value extraction. All drone flights are instantly mapped over time, offering rapid picture ingestion, synchronized video review and note capture creation. These features allow users to tag suspected damage in the photos for later review and to tag and catalogue photos with conclusive damage.
When making capital expense decisions and justifying spending, utilities often must present data quickly, easily and accurately. Providing aggregated reporting across distributed assets allows the user to quickly dive into the details. From providing a summary of identified damage to cataloging findings generated from drone flight analysis, all this information is merely a tap away.
These capabilities — among many others — are positioning drones and UAS flights as the next level in telecom infrastructure projects. As the volume of telecom infrastructure projects increases, it will be more critical than ever to execute these projects as quickly and efficiently as possible. With their ability to help with capital prioritization, asset replacement and upgrade plans, asset inspection and data acquisition, drones have the potential to unlock another level of situational awareness. When paired with cloud-based infrastructure, data analytics and machine learning, the opportunities become limitless.
Edward A. Sutton III, P.E., is a program manager and systems architect for Black & Veatch. With a background rooted in critical infrastructure, he has thorough experience in leading — from concept to completion — a wide array of complex emerging technology projects. Sutton works to develop whole system solutions to complex problems focused on modernization and digital services.