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NATE has been the leading advocate of UAS technology in the wireless infrastructure industry by providing sessions at NATE UNITE, Summer Drone Summits, the publication of Industry Best Practices, and even guiding the FAA on legislation to the benefit of our industry. That advocacy has helped drive awareness of the technology and helped guide the industry towards this amazing new tool.
Just as the NATEUAS Committee has grown over the years, so has the use of drones out on site. While the adoption of drone technology is still very early, we are already starting to hear about the benefits and we’re seeing the promise of its use at scale. Whether you’re a technician, operations manager, engineer, or up in the C-suite, the benefits of this data is compelling.
Let’s take al look at these benefits in three categories:
- The Field
- The Data
- The Back Office
This is where it all begins. Effective deployment and management of resources in the field can make or break a project. It’s also where we encounter the greatest risk to our most valuable assets – the crew. Continue reading
Improvements to health and safety are the foremost benefit that comes to mind when considering UAS technology. If nothing else, it allows our technicians to assess the environment they are working in and approach their task with real time data. Can we safely navigate an obstructed climb, missing climbing peg, kinked safety climb, or damaged top terminator? Yes. Does it benefit us to understand these hazards before commencing elevated work? Absolutely.
In addition to a climb path assessment or bird site evaluation, drones also provide us the opportunity to minimize strenuous, repetitive motion. The health benefits are hard to argue but it goes beyond that. Fatigue inherently increases the risk of injury on-site so reducing length or number of climbs is a no-brainer.
Taking drones into the field can be an intimidating proposition. After all, towers are your specialty, not flying robots, but with the advancement of automated flight programs and the price point of very capable, mid-range airframes, making this technology a part of your day-to-day operations has never been easier. Some important things to consider are FAA Part 107 Certification, insurance requirements for tower companies and carriers, and client expectations regarding the data. All of which are a relatively easy bridge to cross.
While drone data may not be needed for every site visit, there is growing demand across the industry for these data sets incorporated into traditional deliverables. Some call it a hybrid offering, I’d argue it’s just the beginning of a bigger movement.
While drones still do have their fair share of limitations, one advantage that is hard to argue with is the new perspective they provide. They may not be able to turn a wrench or open a box, but they can certainly help you see the backside of a monopole, the far leg of a self-support, or assess a guy line safer and easier than a climb. They can also just as easily collect 360 degree views of a tower from tower top to bottom.
The debate within the industry has been over the value of said data. What are its limitations? How reliable is it? And more than anything, what do I do with it? All of these are fair questions that no one has a true and final answer for yet. Despite a few thousand flights happening annually, there still isn’t a consensus on how to best leverage this data across the industry.
2D vs. 3D? My answer to that question would be: Yes. Do it. Explore the offerings that exist out there today. The sooner you start to explore your options, the sooner you’ll begin to understand the potential impact within your organization and the benefits it can bring your end customers.
Depending on your place in the market, there may not be much use for it at all. And you know what? That’s okay.
The Back Office
Whether your company works on towers, owns towers, resides on towers, or all of the above, the impact of drone operations will be most significant in the back office. Datasets that have never existed before will power new analytical opportunities, provide deeper insights across portfolios, and allow us to be more effective in all aspects of infrastructure management.
Contractors will better understand the status of projects in the field and provide enhanced reporting to end clients. Tower ownership groups will be able to pinpoint problems or opportunities across entire markets on a granular level. And similarly, carriers will have access to better data to help them more effectively assess line of site, deploy equipment, and track their assets.
Over the past few years I have been fortunate to discuss the future of this technology and its potential impact with stakeholders from across the industry. The topics of conversation focused on everything from faster site visits to AI based change detection and everything in between. Slowly but surely, these conversations have turned from theory, to proof of concept, to standard practice in some cases. Every team has taken their own approach to leveraging this data, and all have found significant value in their own way.
That’s the beauty of something brand new – no one can tell you how it’s supposed to work.
Sam McGuire is a member of the NATE UAS Committee and Vice President of Red Mountain Scientific in Fort Collins, Colorado. He can be reached at 720-212-4133 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Sam McGuire, Red Mountain Scientific