The Future of Drones in Telecommunications
Although commercial drones have been in use for more than 30 years when they were used to spray pesticides on rice fields in Japan as a solution to expensive helicopters, telecommunications has been slow in using drones. In fact, it is one of the more recent industries being impacted by UAVs.
Yet anyone knowledgeable about drones sees them playing a key part of network infra- structure maintenance for telecoms.
One of the great advantages of using drones is that they are cost-effective. Drones are the most cost-effective way to maintain critical networks. The cost for a tower climb ranges from $2,000-$5,000 per inspection. This cost has been lowered to about a third by accurately determining tower conditions through high-quality aerial imagery. Telecommunications businesses can lower operating and maintenance costs significantly.
Maintenance, Safety & Quality:
Telecom workers are still climbing towers even though it is one of the most dangerous jobs, and the reason for this is that inspections are necessary, and that until recently, there have not been any good alternatives.
Drones can make a huge difference in maintenance by carrying out routine inspections of antennas by taking pictures, videos, readings and measurements. Aerial inspections not only reduce liability and risk factors, but unmanned aerial vehicles are equipped with thermal sensors and transmitters that can provide high-quality, detailed and accurate aerial imagery—high resolution images—to share the information with the cameras. These images are so detailed that they even show the “part numbers” which may need replacing. At this time such replacement will be made by inspectors, but in the near future, drones will do the job and thus keep inspectors safely on the ground.
Another advantage is that flying a drone is done much more quickly than the time it takes the company to set up equipment for an employee to climb a tower. And the data gathered by drones is sent to a network carrier automatically, which allows instant analysis.
Telecom companies are already using drones for line-of-site testing between radio towers to identify obstructions, power needs, and antennae sites and placement.
Another benefit to using drones is that they can often operate in fairly inclement weather conditions, such as rain and high winds.
UAVs are also able to assist in maintenance by carrying parts to engineers and in the future actually assisting engineers in doing repairs, and possibly in the not so distant future, actually doing the repairs themselves.
In addition to routine inspections, drones can do emergency missions in which they fly over a network of towers to assess damage after a natural disaster.
Drones can also benefit the telecom industry by playing a role in broadcasting telecommunications signals.
In the telecommunications industry it is vital to know what to look for in doing inspections for radio and transmission towers because there are environmental or other hazards to avoid such as bees, birds, trees, structural damage, etc. Inspections of power lines can be very dangerous since telecommunications towers typically emit some kind of magnetic interference, which could bring down a drone if it does not keep a safe distance of at least 100 feet. This also requires the ability to capture accurate photographs from a distance. Drone pilots, therefore, who work in the telecommunications industry, need to be highly skilled.
Yet, fairly recent advancement in technology (2016) has made it possible for UAVs to take autonomous flight paths at the push of a button. The Watson loT powered drone can execute a predestined flight path around a tower to be inspected, or create an improved autonomous flight path based on its own observation. This means that the operator merely brings the drone to the job and oversees the operation executed by the drone. The drone, therefore, needs to fly in a sequence to make sure it does not miss any of the cell tower’s components and then gathers data through sensors in the drone along with images taken by the drone’s camera. This data is then uploaded to the IBM Watson loT Platform which applies analytics to the data which enables it to discover any anomalies instantly.* (Zach Jori, “Inspections with Intelligent Drones,” October 27, 2016).
The future is very bright for the telecommunications industry with the tremendous advances in its multifaceted application of drone technology, a technology which has made impressive strides in providing quality with speed, efficiency, and cost-effective, life-saving service.