April 16, 2015 — Drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have been getting a bad rap as of late, whether they are being used to take out terrorists or to invade the White House’s airspace. However, there is a good side to this technology; it is going to be used to revolutionize cell tower inspections.
Thanks to an exemption awarded by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a new company, Solusia Air, is ready to use UAS to perform asset audits and safety inspections for wireless and utility infrastructure firms.
Solusia Air attaches video, still and infrared cameras and other instruments on Leica Geosystems’ Aibot X6 multi-copters, which it then flies around the cell tower. The multi-copter has six rotors encased in a carbon fiber frame and a maximum payload of 4.4 pounds. The inspections will produce high-definition photo and video inspection, asset audits, RF microwave path validation, intermodulation/interference identification and safety assessments.
The service will be marketed to carriers to boost network performance and to tower companies to provide exacting tower audits.
“It is such a dynamic process at a cell site. Towers are an asset that are always being redone and reworked,” said Chris Moccia, Solusia Air CEO. “As new technologies are deployed, towers need to be audited to document and verify existing configurations and equipment inventories.” Additionally, the UAS is capable of telling the tower owner whether or not the antennas are mounted at the correct elevation, he added.
UAS flights take the place of tower inspections, which have traditionally been done through tower climbs or through observation on the ground using binoculars.
“Some asset managers schedule quarterly visits to physically go to the site and identify what’s on the tower with a pair of binoculars. It is pretty hard to do,” Moccia said. “In fact, you cannot verify the correct elevation and the correct RAD center from the ground with binoculars.”
And then there is the safety factor. The UAS-based inspections will reduce the need for costly, dangerous tower climbs.
Tower Inspection Needs go Beyond Consumer UAS Products
Moccia and Gary Hooker, COO of Solusia Air, have a cell tower installation and construction firm, Solusia Services, based in Dallas, which performs greenfield tower builds and modifications, DAS project management and managed services for wireless carriers. Around 18 months ago, they started looking at different applications of UAS, which led to the formation of Solusia Air as an affiliate.
“We used it internally to check the quality of our work and we decided there are a lot of potential uses for the carriers and tower owners,” Moccia said. “It gives you a lot of data that you might not necessarily get through traditional physical climbs. It is also a lot safer than doing physical climbs.”
Solusia Air began using consumer equipment but found that it could not capture the quality or the data it needed. It partnered with Leica Geosystems, maker of geospatial technology, to develop an engineered wireless application. Solusia Air began the FAA application process in 2014, working with JDA Aviation Technology Solutions.
“Commercial UAS appears to provide good pictures but to accomplish the objectives of our clients we need to zoom in to see accurate details. The cameras that we can carry with Aibot can give us very good detail, very high resolution,” Hooker said. “We tailor the camera equipment and the lens to fit the objectives of the clients. We can use a 20-milimeter lens to get a broader look or a 100-milimeter lens to get a more focused look.”
Until the UAS regulatory structure is implemented, the FAA allows UAS operators who adhere to certain parameters to fly UAS commercially under Section 333 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act
With its exemption in hand, Solusia Air can move forward with operating its service. It already has a master services agreement (MSA) to serve as an approved services vendor for one carrier and is poised to move forward with expanded trials.
“We are working on completing another MSA with another carrier. Both carriers are very interested in our engineering solutions. In the future we will include other customers, such as tower operators,” Moccia.