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In the world of telecommunications, cell carriers are forever working to find solutions for site designs that consider three major parties: municipalities, property owners, and the carriers themselves. While these cellular companies may design a site per their service needs at first, they ultimately need the approval of the local jurisdiction and property owner to proceed with construction. This is where photo simulations come into play. The simulations (commonly referred to as sims) are a helpful visual aid that an increasing number of jurisdictions, as well as landlords, are requesting for review before granting site design approval.

A photo simulation’s main purpose is to depict what the proposed site will look like to the human eye upon completion. These sims can be a requirement on projects with scopes ranging from a simple single antenna swap-out to a complete new site build.

Examples of Photo Sims This first example (see below) shows a rooftop cell site with antennas mounted to the building’s penthouse. The carrier was proposing a site upgrade to include swapping two antennas for newer models at each of its three sectors. The first photo, the existing view, was taken to show the current state of one sector before the proposed upgrade. The second photo simulates what the penthouse mounted equipment will look like after swapping two of the shorter antennas for larger, newer models.

This simulation is on the simpler end of the spectrum, as far as photo sims go, because it only entails replacing antennas on an existing structure. What happens if the telecommunications carrier wants to accomplish a lot more than a few antenna swapouts? Let’s check out the next example to learn more.

The next example covers a site where a tower developer wanted to construct an entirely new fenced-in compound with a new 170’ monopole tower, ground level equipment cabinets, five levels of carrier antennas (or RAD centers), and a 10’ lightning rod at the top of the monopole. The municipality requested that the developer provide photo simulations illustrating the completed tower compound with all of its components.

You will see in the existing view that there is currently nothing more than an open field in a park at this location. The proposed view shows all of the completed site work including the five future carrier RAD centers on the tower. Although the tower most likely will not be built with all five levels of antennas to start, the photo sims are a way for the jurisdiction’s reviewers to see the visual impact of the proposed site at its busiest state in the future.

Balloon Tests Photo Simulations are supposed to be an accurate representation of a proposed site, therefore it is important to create the graphically enhanced views with all equipment scaled as precisely as possible. Many companies that provide photo simulation services have their own tricks and techniques for sizing equipment.

One commonly used procedure for placing a tower is called a balloon test. To conduct a balloon test, a field worker will visit the site with a five foot diameter balloon filled with helium, a carabiner, fishing line, electrical tape, and, of course, their trusty camera! The tied end of the helium balloon is looped, attached to the carabiner, and safely secured with electrical tape. The fishing line is tied tightly to the other end of the carabiner. The field worker will then bring the materials out to the exact location of the proposed tower’s coordinates and fly the balloon to the tower height. The line is securely tied around a stake planted firmly in the ground and photos are then taken from desired locations for photo simulations.

The photo results of a balloon test make sizing and placing the graphically prepared tower into a simulation as easy as possible. The tower base will be placed at the proposed coordinates and the tip of the tower will stretch to the height of the balloon. It’s important to keep a few things in mind when performing a balloon test such as proximity of the balloon flight location to power lines, wind speed on the day of the test, and notifying the local municipalities of the test before flying the balloon.

Photo simulations are becoming an increasingly common requirement of project permitting applications, as well as exhibits for property owners before approval to complete work on cell sites. It makes sense that all involved parties want to clearly visualize the end results before signing off on the project, and it’s our job as wireless service engineers to provide them with as accurate a picture as possible.

About James Marooney, PE

James Marooney, PE, is a Regional Leader for Wireless Services in Washington D.C. at Foresite Group. He graduated from University of Maryland with his Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering and a minor in Project Management. James enjoys working with a communicative team in order to get the job done on time. He has a special interest in working with a variety of carriers, especially learning how each carrier implements their systems and methods to complete a job.


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