THE BENEFITS OF USING DRONES FOR CELL TOWER AUDITS
It used to be if you asked someone how they got something done so fast, they would respond, “There’s an app for that.” Well soon we might be saying, “There’s a drone for that.” Drones are being increasingly established as a critical tool in the tower industry. Auditing a tower has become easier and faster with the use of new technology associated with drones. Although a drone cannot replace a tower climber, they can supplement a company’s tower team by freeing up the crews to do the installation work and make their work more efficient.
When I first came into this industry 18 years ago, if you wanted to know how an antenna was mounted or how a sector was installed on a tower, you had to rely on the person that did the work, what they may have remembered, and whatever redlines they may have put onto the paper construction drawings (if you could find them). We did not have digital cameras, live video from the top of the tower, GPS alignment tools, and certainly not drones. As long as the system came up clean using the Wiltron sweep gear and the top hand on the site said it was done, then everything was good. The last 15 years has brought us many changes. NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard), increasingly complex equipment arrays, multiple carriers, and maximizing vertical real estate highlight the need for accuracy. With improved safety and quality expectations, more detailed documentation processes, digital cameras, and better test equipment, installation crews and subsequent tower audit teams must require more skill and accuracy than ever before. Until recently, one thing has remained true: a 2 to 5-person tower team has to put on their 50 pounds of climbing gear to audit the site before future equipment can be installed. The data has been collected manually, often under very complex conditions. Audits consist of extensive notes, measurements and hundreds of photos of the existing conditions. The accuracy of the reports provided to engineers are significantly impacted by the training, experience, weather conditions, and fatigue of the audit team. Having experience in all aspects of an audit, I can say that any one of these factors can affect even the best audit team.
Drone being used to audit a tower by Foresite Group
About 5 years ago, I started to hear about drones being used for observing towers for migratory birds prior to sending out a tower crew. This had many benefits from increased safety to reduced expenses. However, due to the limitation on what drones could initially provide, within the tower industry their use essentially only amounted to an improved set of eyes. But that has changed rapidly.
Recent Advancements Incredible technological advancements within the last year have opened the door to some very exciting applications. In addition to the benefits mentioned earlier, drones now have improved optics and video – the most impressive of which is Photogrammetry. These improvements are a game changer to what a drone can do to improve an overall tower audit, as well as ensure that a job has been properly executed. We still need quality teams to do the work associated with installation, but these tools open the door to enhanced quality, improved speed in the audit process and safer inspections.
What is Photogrammetry and why is it a game changer? Photogrammetry is a new technology using HD photos combined with GPS, focal length of the camera, and aspect angle ratios created by the drone circling an object (in this case a tower sector) in order to create a set of points that recreate a highly accurate 3-D model that can be imported into AutoCAD.
3D CAD model of tower top based off photogrammetry, provided by CLAW Telecom
Once inside this program, everything is captured and can be utilized for whatever the needs are. If you need distance between the antennas, you can get it. Need the length of the mast? You can measure it right inside the CAD program. It used to take a 3-person tower team half a day to audit a single carrier, and if they did not capture a specific measurement while on site, then a subsequent visit and all the associated costs would be necessary. This new tool can do an entire tower with multiple carriers, and the ground level equipment in a single visit. The information provided by the drone is less liable to be corrupted as it does not experience as many layers of human interaction before it is imported into a CAD program. There are greater efforts used in translating the cloud point data, however the overall result is a superior product, with improved accuracy and increased efficiency.
Tower photos used to be limited due to gravity. Now a drone can provide unobstructed views from the outside of the tower looking in, along with improved aspect views. Photos from the top of the tower are limited by your distance from the item and the quality of that photo. Photogrammetry captured by the drone can be utilized for the compound too.
A tower technician will still be needed to install equipment following the plans given to them; however, with the data obtained from the drone, the people working on the tower have a more accurate evaluation of the existing conditions and encounter less surprises in the field. They are also able to prep the material before climbing the tower or even before leaving the warehouse and understand that their work is being evaluated by a more robust third party system.
The greater speed, accuracy and feedback will improve the industry. The teams that are not good at their trade will receive critical feedback and reinforcement, while good teams will be rewarded with sustained and ongoing opportunities. Uniformity on the towers will result in faster and safer builds which will result in additional profits for all parties involved. Historical evidence will contribute to improved solutions which will continue to improve the industry.
A tool is only as good as the user A drone is only a toy in the hands of someone that is not educated in its proper use and capabilities. A professional operator or pilot recognizes that there is more to auditing a tower than simply taking pictures of the tower. It begins with the proper licensing, insurance, and approvals of the tower owners. It requires an understanding of not only tower or telecom industry but also of the FCC and FAA requirements. A quality drone, with the proper hardware, added to the skill of an experienced pilot, combined with the knowledge of the industry is critical in the effectiveness of the team and product. In untrained hands a drone can be dangerous. FAA, tower owners, birds, flight conditions, electrical lines, and individuals in a drop zone underneath the drone are all concerns. A properly vetted and experienced pilot can save significant time, money and resources while an inferior group could be a hazard not only to the tower, but also to by-standers and the operators themselves.
Drones will not replace tower workers but, like the adjustable positioning lanyard, it is another tool that will vastly improve the effectiveness and efficiency of those in the industry. As drone technology improves, the speed, quality and safety will provide the opportunity for additional work.
About Foresite Group
Foresite Group is a multidisciplinary engineering, planning, and consulting firm providing services to public and private sector clients nationwide. Our team’s collaborative process results in creative products and services that help our clients achieve their goals. Our team takes pride in enhancing and developing the cities and communities where we live, work, and raise our families.