Expected to be one of the most expensive storms to strike the United States, Hurricane Harvey was also the proving ground for how drones can make the recovery process for the communications infrastructure more efficient and less expensive.
In advance of Hurricane Harvey, AT&T had devised a plan to deploy crews to a San Antonio staging area. As the storm hit and moved on, the crews were dispatched to the affected areas. Drones were deployed initially in the Corpus Christi/Rockport area where Harvey made initial landfall after the storm moved inland. The carrier had 25 teams with drones in the field to define repair crew engagement.
“The drones allowed us to have a quicker, safer, more efficient response to the hurricane,” said Art Pregler, director, National Mobility Systems at AT&T and member of the NATE UAS Committee. “We brought in crews and flew the drones and were able to quickly assess any damage to our towers. We could better inform our crews of which sites to go to, the priorities, the extent of any repairs that were needed.”
In Houston, just getting to a tower was a challenge due to the flooding, so drones were also used to define access routes to AT&T network elements.
“We just have to be in visual line of sight of the tower, so if the site is under water we can fly the drone over the water to the site. There were quite a few instances where drones had to fly over flooding waters as we examined our wireline elements, Pregler said.
“It proved to be very effective. Our drone crews worked directly with our repair crews. They were synched up on them, providing them with the information they needed when they needed it,” Pregler added.
While the result of the drone deployment during Harvey was quite positive, AT&T will study the cost versus the benefit of using drones as it plans future deployments.
“We are looking at that value of the data collected and comparing it with the cost of collecting that data,” Pregler said. “We will consider the complexities of getting permissions to fly and interacting with first responders.”
Some Towers Were Damaged but None Knocked Over
DataWing Global, a San Antonio, Texas-based aerial data collection company, did reconnaissance for two major tower owner after Harvey. The drone company, which has an internal staff of 11 pilots and a total network of 160 pilots nationwide, set up a command center in Mattis, Texas, on Aug. 31 with its drone crews and a total of nine pilots and spent the next five days investigating a little more than 100 structures.
“One of the values our investigation was finding structures that were not damaged,” said Jimmy Taylor, director, advisory board at DataWing Aerial Analytics. “Reporting that status to the owners allowed them to direct their crews to the sites that were damaged.”
Damage that DataWing did report included stripped coaxial cable, antennas that were hanging from the structure and flooding around the compounds. Taylor noted that no towers were knocked down by the storm.
“Tower companies have done a great job of building strong towers and reinforcing them as loading increased,” Taylor said. “The result is towers that will withstand forceful storms and winds like this.”