5×5 Technologies, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based firm focused on improving the accuracy and usability of data collected by commercial drones, plans to launch a drone-powered asset inspection service in Japan in spring 2019 in partnership with Tokyo-based SoftBank Corp.
In August, SoftBank invested $4.4 million in 5×5 in an effort to improve the aging of social infrastructure and facilities in Japan through strategic maintenance and management using high-definition 3D images, but when the founders formed 5X5 they had cell tower audits on their minds.
Back in 2012 when drones first began to be discussed in relation to commercial asset inspections, Eyal Stein, cofounder and CTO of 5X5, did a proof of concept on inspecting cell towers with drones.
“One of the findings that came out of that work was you get lots and lots of pretty pictures when you are inspecting with a drone but not a lot of actionable information,” said Anne Zink, cofounder and CEO of 5X5. “We asked how we can create an application that allows them to essentially operate in a reverse-CAD 3D environment. We take the real world and put it into a CAD environment. We then give you all sorts of tools, so you can manually and automatically extract data.”
After two years of development, 5X5 proved its model-scaling algorithms, which are necessary for the data to be accurate, and filed for the requisite patents. In 2016, the company did proofs of concept with the major tower owners, and in 2017, it launched its reverse-CAD application and validated it in the field. The validation process involved tower owners hiding items on the structure that 5X5 had to find and then measure within 1/32ndof an inch.
“Our patent-pending algorithms are what deliver the accuracy that the industry is demanding. Depending on the use case, we collect both video and still photography and feed the data into our 3D model in the reverse CAD environment,” Zink said. “Accuracy depends on the camera and the flight plan and other things, but in terms of getting to an extreme engineering intensive use case like mount mapping, we were able to prove that you can use a drone for that.”
5X5 is not a drone operator. It will provide its tower auditing engine as a software as a service to tower companies, carriers and others. Operators will fly the drones and upload or ship the data to 5X5, which feeds the data into its computers to create the end result for the customer.
“This past year we have been looking for the best UAS platforms that can operate in the challenging RF environment and building partnerships with a variety of UAS drone operators,” Zink said.
Drones in the Tower Space
Zink, who has years of experience as a consultant providing go-to-market strategies for carriers, did her market research asking tower owners about the challenges they face operating towers and what data drones could provide to solve the various problems. The answers depended on which personnel she asked the question.
“A number of different personas that operate with towers and each have different needs,” Zink said. Engineers want to do mount mapping. Sales teams that want to know how much room is left on the tower. Financial personnel want to know if the equipment on the tower matches what the inventory that they are billing the customers. And there are the people that are doing the pre- and post-construction audits. It depends on who you are talking to what the use case is.”
5X5 is currently working with several tower owners. In fact it is a preferred vendor of Crown Castle International, having done a proof of concept for them back in 2016. It is also in conversations with multiple carriers and expects to begin work for them late this quarter or first quarter 2019.
SoftBank’s investment in 5X5 guarantees that the firms reach will go well beyond the United States’ border and beyond telecom.
“SoftBank is our ideal partner. The company has a long-term vision for drone powered asset inspections that will allow 5×5 to accelerate development and deployment of innovation to ensure the long-term conservation of critical infrastructure,” Zink said.
In Japan, social infrastructure, including bridges, harbors, dams, power plants and steel towers, is more than 50 years old. With the shortage of maintenance and inspection personnel due to declining birthrate and aging of population, strategic measures need to be put in place to manage and maintain equipment over long periods of time.