Over the last few years, the telecommunications industry has discovered the benefits of using drones, specifically for applications like tower inspection and maintenance. Tower climbing has long been considered one of the more dangerous telecom-related jobs, and with more than 300,000 cell towers in the United States alone needing regular inspection and maintenance, the risk reduction and cost benefits associated with using drones are unparalleled.
Thanks to new regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration, drone pilots no longer need an aircraft pilot’s license in order to fly drones commercially. But beyond just the flying of drones, telecom organizations need to consider the data value chain associated with collecting, processing and reporting the data as part of a larger drone-based inspection program. It is time to move beyond aerial imagery and into aerial intelligence.
PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers International) estimates the addressable market of drone-powered solutions in the telecommunications industry at $6.3 billion, and the reason behind that investment is clear. Using crews to regularly inspect cell towers is a dangerous process — and inspecting assets over hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles is slow and challenging process. In addition, the average cost of a tower climb can range anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 per inspection.
Arguably, the main concern over cost is the issue of safety. On average, cell towers are about 100 feet to 300 feet tall, but some are as tall as 1,000 feet. A 2012 episode of the PBS series Frontline found that tower climbers had a death rate approximately 10 times that of construction workers.
Although drones will never outplace a human engineer or technician, they can be a valuable tool for augmenting a worker’s efficiency and improving his overall safety. Where tower maintenance is required, using a drone to check for environmental hazards or unwelcome critters, such as bee and wasp nests, as well as the overall integrity of the tower before sending a crew member up, can potentially save lives. Also, when they can see the status of the problem that needs to be addressed, tower climbers can be more efficient by bringing along the correct equipment and tools before they start the climb.
Drones can also be a valuable tool for telecommunications carriers before a tower is even built, because construction crews need to inspect and evaluate every potential site for a new tower before installation can begin. Drones are widely known as one of the better tools available for vetting construction sites and making other pre-installation inspections, but other important uses include radio-frequency testing, disaster recovery and distributed antenna system (DAS) testing. In 2017, AT&T used drones to test and improve DAS networks at football stadiums by measuring network performance and delivering data to on-site engineers. According to AT&T’s blog, without a drone, this kind of testing process can take up to five days. By using drones, the carrier was able to shorten the process to one day.
Drones have proven to be an effective tool in improving the overall tower inspection process due to their ability to collect more sophisticated images and geospatial data while keeping inspection crews on the ground and away from hazardous equipment. Using this technology, leading telecom organizations have begun implementing drone program to lessen the number of manual inspections, ultimately gaining unprecedented insight into the condition of their towers and other critical assets.
Drone inspection programs not only offer a more flexible and cost-effective way to manage cell towers at a single point in time, but also a data-intensive structure for tracking conditions over time. Using advanced drone software that includes data processing, analysis and machine learning tools, inspection teams will be able to analyze all of their assets and automatically map changes over time without ever having to touch a tower. This information can, in turn, influence decisions about where to place future cell towers, based on how towers in certain areas have degraded over time.
As with any kind of equipment, the use of drones comes with its own set of rules and best practices. Under Part 107, a drone operator is only allowed to fly in uncontrolled airspace during daylight hours, and the drone must not exceed an altitude of 400 feet above the ground (higher if the drone remains within 400 feet of a structure). Although that may seem to indicate that only towers of a certain height can be flown using a drone, it actually means that under Part 107 a drone operator can fly the entire height of the tower or structure, as well as an additional 400 feet in either direction. That is, of course, unless that additional 400 vertical feet takes the drone into controlled airspace.
As with any new tool, knowing the capabilities and limits of drone technology is key to ensuring the safe and efficient operations of unmanned systems. A detailed flight plan is always encouraged, no matter how small the job, and an understanding of advanced automation, geofencing and collision avoidance tools only further streamlines the flight and inspection process.
Telcos and tower managers who implement a successful drone inspection program can drive an estimated value of $2.5 to $2.8 million in less than a year, with the potential to expand to $8.5 million over the next five years. For organizations that need to manage infrastructure over miles of terrain, drones incorporated with a comprehensive data collection, processing and reporting program, prove to be a flexible and cost-effective way to inspect assets while keeping technicians safe. As drone technology continues to evolve and the use of advanced analytics — such as artificial intelligence and machine learning — propagates, we can expect to see new and exciting use cases for drones in the telecommunications industry.
Dave Culler is general manager of energy at PrecisionHawk. Visit www.precisionhawk.com.