The Telecom industry has benefited substantially by the integration of Drone Inspection Technology to the ongoing maintenance of this VITAL infrastructure. If you are just getting started as a drone service provider, this article will help you understand more about Cell Tower DRONE Inspection for your Drone STARTUP Business.
These days, our mobile phones and the IoT (internet of things) have become integral to daily life; and for our mobile devices to work, there needs to be a reliable infrastructure in place.
Cell site owners are reducing maintenance costs by half and maximizing efficiency by implementing drone inspections.
The Telecom Industry
There are an estimated 3 to 4 million towers in operation around the world today. And with the implementation of 5G, that number has grown exponentially. ~an excerpt from “The best solution for Cell Tower inspection jobs.”
Telecom towers have become a fixture of our visual landscape. They come in all forms such as the common self-supporting and lattice towers, monopole towers as well as camouflage towers. You may even notice them atop high voltage power lines, as well as installed on shopping center roofs, the tops of skyscraper buildings, basically anywhere that is high and unobstructed. The technology has progressed over the years from 2G to 3G, then 4G and now we have 5G.
The Different types of antennas on a Cell Tower
On a cell tower, there are different types of antennas that receive and transmit radio signal from tower to tower, providing a data connection to our wireless devices. These different antenna types consist of Panel antennas, Omni antennas, Dipoles, Dish antenna as well as other equipment such as remote radio units (or RRU’s) that convert radio frequency from fiber in order to transmit across the antenna. These antennas will vary in shape and size, receiving and transmitting different types of data. The dish antenna, (that looks like a bass drum) are the transmission links that transmit signals from tower to tower. These transmission links need to have direct line of sight in order to pass data efficiently from dish to dish. If the towers do not have line of sight, they will commonly be connected via fiber.
The panel antennas, which are the long rectangular boxes with a flat edge; are what actually transmits signal to and from our devices via radio frequency. You may wonder how we maintain a consistent connection when traveling. Cell towers are linked together; so as we begin to lose reception from one tower, our devices will automatically hop to the next tower and so on and so forth, all seamlessly keeping us connected.
Radio frequency can pass through most obstructions, but will struggle in areas of dense vegetation, concrete buildings (especially buildings with a metal roof, as well as mountainous areas, which is why there are so many towers needed to saturate these areas and mitigate inconsistent signal coverage. In areas that are geographically challenging, such as the more rural areas, there may not be enough demand to install the necessary towers to saturate these areas, in fact, my parents live in an area where you have to sit by a window, or better yet, go outside just to make a phone call.
How Drones Are Used in Telcom
Drones have revolutionized how telcom assets are monitored and maintained. However, one of the more important drone functions we can perform are LOS (or line-of-sight) surveys.
From the ground, it is quite a process to determine if there is a direct line of sight between an existing set of towers, or if there is a plan to build a new tower. This can be a costly endeavor, with many different agencies or organizations involved, survey teams, development and engineering teams with all of their various specializations and equipment.
Line of Sight (LOS) Surveys
In contrast, one team with the proper drone can be used to perform a line of sight (or LOS) survey and provide valuable data that will help to establish the line of sight link. This replaces the old ways of risking manpower by having a person rig up and climb the tower, then with binoculars or a camera, try to find the “A-End”, or primary tower, or the “B-End”, the industry term used to find the 2nd or 3rd tower with the link. This method is challenging especially depending on the distance to the next tower, or proposed tower site. It can also be tricky in sketchy atmospheric conditions such as haze or fog or in areas with terrain that can obstruct the direct line of sight. Other common methods for tracing the link between towers can be to a mirror, using the sun to bounce the light and aim it in the direction of the tower of interest. Of course, someone needs to be on the other end to see the reflection and establish the line of sight link. There are a few other methods, but let’s talk about performing a Drone LOS Survey.
As I already mentioned, utilizing a drone, there are a couple ways to perform this survey. A simple method would be to utilize a strobe light on your drone, however, this may still require a person to rig up and scale the opposite tower to spot the strobe light and establish the link.
Easily the most effective method would be to utilize a drone equipped with camera sensor that has high-power zooming capabilities like the Z30 or the H20. This type of setup allows us to hover the drone where the dishes are located and lock onto the specific bearing of the next tower, or site. This will give us the ability to hone in on the line of sight between the two towers providing there are no obstacles between the towers.
For new prospective tower locations, a telco company may want to know the possibility to establishing a link from the new tower position. In this case, we will need to provide two specifications needed to build the tower structure. The first would be either yes or no if a direct line of sight can be established, and the second being the minimum height data. The minimum height data is measured simply by launching the drone at the new tower site, and while facing the correct bearing or direction, we will raise the drone until the A-END comes in to view. We will need to clear any tree lines, terrain or man-made structures to ensure the line of sight link can be established. We then document the height measurement in our LOS report. The Telco company will use this data to install the dish antenna at the exact height and bearing, ensuring the transmission link between these two towers.
Drone Inspections for Cell Towers
Next, we will talk about Cell Tower drone inspections for your drone startup business. Tower inspections will likely be the most common service we will perform for Telco companies, allowing them to proactively monitor the condition of the tower structure and its components, in order to perform maintenance and remediation efforts keeping the towers working reliably and properly. As the drone service provider, we would fly the inspection, capturing high resolution visual (RGB) imagery, as well as thermal images, and generate a report for the Telco client. Our services benefit the Telco company by improving safety to personnel, getting to the inspection data quicker, and lowering ongoing maintenance costs. These can be flown manually, or autonomously.
3D Model of the Cell Tower
Another service we can offer is to provide a 3D model or digital twin of the tower. This can be done very simply with the same drone, but provides valuable data for the Telco client. With this data, the client can zoom in, annotate issues or concerns, and generate reports. The images are high resolution, and can even be used to inventory assets, even read a barcode if needed. Just be sure to ask the client for a checklist so you are sure to capture all, or as many as possible. Another benefit is that the software can calculate azimuth or direction bearing of dish based on the software algorithm, measurement calculations. Also, in some regions, the ground can be subject to change, especially in areas prone to earthquakes and landslides. These 3D models can show topographical changes to the ground and any changes to the structure.
I will also mention RF Testing. However, this is a very specialized service requiring specific sensors and skills. I talk about this in a separate article, just click here -> and scroll down to “Drone Services | Telecom and Cell Tower Inspection“.
The Best Drone for Cell Tower Work
So, what kind of drone do we need to perform these services? In a previous article, I talk about the best and most practical drones. Our equipment budget might be limited when it comes to buying the latest and greatest gear on the market. However, I will start out with my preferred setup and work my way down the scale from there.
After discussing the methods for LOS surveys, we talked about using a camera with powerful zoom capabilities. So, if that is the most important specification, I would easily recommend going with the DJI M300 paired with the H20 or H20T (T is for thermal) I’m not going to go too deep into the specs, but the M300 drone gives you tremendous flexibility with a wide array of compatible sensors. For a purpose-built solution, I would also recommend the M30 or M30T which is a scaled down version of the M300 that integrates the H20 or H20T sensor; in my humble opinion, one of the most efficient and best on the market (as of this writing). Aside from the powerful zoom capability of 20X optical and 20MP camera, the H20 series offers a laser range finder that can measure the distance between a specific point and the drone. Additionally, the bearing or direction that the drone is facing can be seen on the on the telemetry display. Be sure to ask the client for the bearing of the tower, allowing you to ensure accurate alignment.
We could also go with a M200/210 series drone paired with the Z30 camera. Just keep in mind for anything more than 10km, this setup might be limited.
For cell tower drone inspections for your drone startup business, there are many drones you can go with. If you are a drone startup, you may be super budget conscious, so we could literally start out with a DJI or Autel “mini” platform, as well as the Mavic 2 Pro, or Phantom 4 Pro. These days, the Mavic 3 series is extremely versatile and would perform many different services extremely well.
At Scopito, we are experts at digitizing your assets. Our platform uses automation and Machine Learning to derive all-important insights from your geospatial data. Over time, your historic inspection data will become the catalyst for powerful predictive maintenance.
What Software do we need for Cell Tower Drone Work?
For my inspection data processing, analytics and reporting, I use Scopito.
There are many software platforms that can be used for Telco drone services. This is a broad subject matter and I am in the process of writing an article that discusses that area in great detail.
However, for the LOS or Line of Sight survey, these can be flown manually using your controller app; and flying the mission as described. For inspections, these can also be flown manually, but there are also apps for automated flight missions.
For the Telco industry, there is tremendous opportunity for the Drone Service Provider to provide these services and establish solid relationships and recurring revenue.
How To Get Your FAA Part 107 Pilot Certification
If you are serious about making money with your drone, whether it be Real Estate, Aerial Inspections, etc., then you will need, from the FAA a 14 CFR Part 107 certification.
The best source for your training can be found by clicking on RemotePilot101. Jason Schappert is a pilot and author of 8 best-selling aviation flight training books. While studying and taking tests is not the most fun, Jason breaks it down into 10 easy to follow (at your own pace) video lessons. These lessons are straight and to the point giving you the exact knowledge, nothing less, nothing more than what you need to pass the exam. Additionally, he is continually updating the training to keep it relevant to any changes to FAA regulations. This membership is a 1-time subscription – for life! So when you’re 24 month renewal comes around, just sign in to RemotePilot101 and refresh your training.
Just remember, if you are flying commercially, you will need your Part 107 certification. It’s not hard, you can do it!