As in any business, telecommunications tower companies (telcos) are always looking for ways to make their work better, safer and more cost-efficient. One of the most popular advancements in this area is drone usage. We’ve all seen these machines in action, whether in photography, security or even on our shopping channels – an Amazon or Domino’s drone may soon be winging its way to your door.
Drones have become increasingly popular since the Covid-19 pandemic limited traditional site inspections, particularly during periods of restricted travel. Gartner Inc. recently announced that 2020 sales of enterprise (flying) drones increased by 50% since 2019. They point to construction, insurance and government institutions as rapid adopters of this technology.
In the telco field, drones are increasingly being used to conduct telecoms infrastructure surveys, providing up-to-date information on towers without the need for specialist climbing teams or safety equipment. Delmec is watching this development closely; the technology is progressing quickly, and we intend to be at the forefront of this newest evolution in our industry.
Delmec has used drones as part of our services for years, adapting our existing systems as the machines’ abilities grow. Our clients trust our expertise and experience and rely on our technological innovation. We’re currently developing a solution which will allow us to use drones for due diligence surveys, where we help clients to get an accurate understanding of what a proposed purchase really entails – we hope to issue this shortly. We also plan to use them for line of sight surveys and they will be especially useful for emergency site investigations, particularly if the towers are too dangerous to climb or access is blocked.
However, the data collected by the current range of drones effectively entails detailed photographs of the tower. These images are then converted into point clouds, which combine to build a picture of the tower on our computer screens.
Most drone types can gather this type of visual intelligence, although to a varying degree of accuracy or usefulness: for example, they can’t yet judge steel grades, coating thickness or stay wire tensions. Their MM accuracy is slowly improving and they are only now being used to determine tower geometry and material sizes. In this regard, experienced engineers such as ours are often still needed to collect and analyse critical data.
The most exciting development in this field is not the use of drones themselves, but the software that processes the information. This is becoming increasingly adept, utilising algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to assess complex issues onsite. Companies such as AirMap, Visual Intelligence and Bentley are adapting their software to allow for a range of drone enhancements and integrations, including:
- Digital Twinning – this is a useful application that allows comparison between what’s currently on site and what has been designed for the site, i.e., what the revenue models are based on. Ensuring complete adherence to revenue models will reduce the $6bn that PricewaterhouseCoopers estimate is lost to tower owners globally in this way.
- Ancillary Comparison – by comparing what’s currently on site with what was there in the past, companies can ensure that they’re only being charged for facilities currently in place. Again, this will allow us to deliver even better value to our clients.
- Design Solutions – improved drone software offers more accurate dimensions, allowing for better strengthening solutions or new tower design. These will help us offer economic solutions to our clients, saving them large amounts of material, time, and expense.
- Intelligent Maintenance – by identifying and targeting known risk issues, maintenance can be deployed more accurately and efficiently. Such improvements will assist Delmec in our national and international maintenance operations.
- Structural Assessment – making major engineering decisions will become easier and safer when used in conjunction with up-to-date data and effective modelling. This will also help to minimise site visits and reduce costs.
Delmec is continuously expanding our drone and data collection ability, working with software development teams around the world to ensure our clients benefit from the most advanced technology available.
We’re also actively adapting our Telecoms Information Management System (TiMs) and its online app to process data from drones in real-time, assisting or perhaps eventually replacing our teams on the ground, whether they’re in Africa, Asia or Europe. Our smart data management already reduces administration by up to 50%: improved drone usage, software integration and AI will represent a major leap forward in this regard. Over time, these advancements will allow us to use drones to make engineering assessments and determine outcomes and solutions to onsite problems. Eventually, drones may even become capable of performing remote engineering tasks, moving from passive inspections to autonomous missions at the flick of a switch.
Drones are undoubtedly becoming a key tool in our industry, and we fully intend to utilise this exciting new technology to add value for our clients, at home and abroad.