May 4, 2017 —
Using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) technology to inspect and evaluate telecommunications towers involves more than simply selecting an aircraft and beginning to operate. Productive UAS operators analyze individual data requirements for specific companies and apply a proven systems integration approach. UAS include unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), ground-based controllers and a method of communication between them.
Vetting drone contractors takes time and care, but pays off with increased safety in conducting inspections, more data, and better and more timely reporting
In many parts of the United States, telecommunications towers are sited where weather conditions range from hurricane winds to hail storms to tornadoes. Maintenance workers and contractors risk their personal safety and even their lives to document tower conditions, locate defects and repair damage. Many sustain life-altering injuries while inspecting the towers.
Inspection is only the first step in what can be a lengthy process. It may take weeks for some inspectors to write the field reports, identify and purchase the necessary materials and schedule repair appointments. Meanwhile, the tower’s structural integrity hangs in the balance. With UAS technology and data analysis, this time-consuming process can be shortened to a few days.
The Vetting Process
When T-Mobile US requested to make updates to its equipment in space rented on my 263-foot tower that AT&T built in 1967, I wondered whether using a drone could help to answer questions about hanging cables and about parts that had fallen off the tower. I wondered if a drone could verify whether a neighbor had ceased shooting at the tower strobe lights.
So I set about conducting interviews and watching demonstrations of UAS equipment at work. I found significant differences among companies and individuals who use UAS to evaluate towers. One company used a drone to take 200 photographs, only to accidentally erase all but 49 of them. Their process also required the purchase of a specialized computer program for $69 in order to clearly view the ones that were left.
Safe drone operation near telecommunications towers requires drones to keep their distance to avoid colliding with the tower, which could happen if the drone were too close when the wind shifts. A collision also could happen if a drone were too close when the pilot makes an error or if the drone malfunctions. Yet, drones need to be near enough to capture images for satisfactory analysis. Some UAS operators use high-resolution photography to allow drones to take photographs from a safe distance of at least 15 to 30 feet from a tower, yet still provide images that can be magnified sufficiently to reveal details.
For my tower, a cooperative effort between a data analysis company, Panton, and a UAS operator, Aviation Unmanned, produced the best photographs, data archive and inspection reports. Their photographs had such high resolution that I was able to enlarge the image of a 1-inch bolt to nearly full-screen size and count its threads. The photographs allowed me to evaluate a clear fall zone area and any problems within a 263-foot radius of the tower. The drone took the photographs from 15 to 30 feet away from the tower.
It helps when the tower owner can be present during the drone flight, as I was. Being on site allowed me to ask the operator to get more detailed shots of areas where I observed conditions that might lead to future problems. A representative of a tenant with equipment on my tower also came to watch, and he was able to see where lightning had blown the top cap off of one of his antennas. Work conducted by the two companies produced an archive of 249 photographs of my tower containing never before accessible details. The photographs will allow me to make future comparisons as necessary. The photographs document the tower’s compliance with FCC and FAA requirements and document its condition for the insurance company that issued a policy for the tower.
I give high marks to Panton’s tower inspection data collection, analysis and access platform. After capturing images for each inspection, the company saves the images under a specific job structure, along with the inspection report and video, if available. Customers with account permission can download the images.
Users can annotate the images to indicate the damage shown and save the result in the job structure, which can be accessed and modified as needed. Users also can save descriptions with each image. The platform also can store mobile images for later access.
A tower management dashboard provides the relationship among all towers owned by the user and the history of inspection for each tower, property and associated carriers.
The platform builds a communication channel that customers use to interact with the Panton team directly on Pi chat (a social media-like instant message service) or via a mobile app. Real-time communication helps users obtain answers and resolve problems as quickly as possible.
A universal reporting function with a one-time definition of report template and data contents allows users to run real-time reports on demand.
There are also several positives for Aviation Unmanned, the UAS operator. The company hires only experienced UAS pilots and payload operators. Its pilots have experience as military UAS instructor pilots. They have operated complex UAS platforms throughout the world. All of its operators have FAA pilot licenses and certification as instructors from manufacturers of commercially available UAS.
Vetting UAS contractors can be tedious, but the effort is worth it. Commercial drone technology works in real time: The drone flight photographs make it possible to direct the pilots to areas where problems are logged as they are observed. This is impossible when climbers examine towers and problems become apparent only later when their photographs are reviewed.
Of course, safety is the most important difference between manned and unmanned tower examinations. But other factors — timeliness of information gathered, evaluation reports delivered, vast improvement in details collected and the quality of the archived photographs —make UAS technology an up and comer in the wireless business.
Larry Shaefer is president of Wireless Towers and Wireless Properties, which own towers and tower properties in Texas. Panton has its headquarters in Houston, and Aviation Unmanned has its headquarters in Addison, Texas.