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Tips for inspecting towers by drone

Drone flight companies give tips for inspecting towers by drone.

Telecommunications towers are inspected many times during the lifespan of a tower. Each time a tower is touched for modifications, it has to be inspected.

“If there is a modification to tower, say a new antenna or maybe a new carrier is added to the structure … it has to be inspected to ensure structural integrity,” said Johnie Johnson, president & CEO of drone flight company Helo Perspective.

Telecom customers fall into three main constituencies that need to do their own type of tower inspections: construction teams, tower owners and telecom operators.

Construction teams: Construction teams need to vet the land a tower will be built on and find the ideal sites area to build once the customer has an area where the signal would carry best.

[Read RCR Wireless News’ editorial report on drones and watch Webinar: Editorial Report: Operators taking flight: The emerging role of drones in network operations and maintenance]

Once the towers are built, tower owners need site audits that give them an inventory (are operators adding or subtracting antennas or making changes to their rented space?) and structural data to be sure the tower is sound.

Carriers, network operators: Need to inspect the network equipment on the tower, checking the angles of down tilt and azimuth to ensure a good signal.

A pre-inspection is needed to determine if a climber needs to go up the tower and if it is safe for them to do so.

Here are only some tips for flying drones and running a telecom inspection service using drones. This list is not exhaustive. Many more steps exist depending on the drone company’s procedures.

Know the hazards and follow the flight plan
Most professional drone companies make a detailed flight plan based on a work order. Some are automating the flights using a flight plan and geofencing. Know where the hazards are before the flight. Hazards are obviously the tour itself, guy wires, any other structure around the towers.

Know who the onsite manager is
In case the onsite manager was not told you were visiting, make sure you get the person’s name and have his or her contact information.

Use a VO (visual observer) depending on job
The visual observer gives you extra an additional layer of safety if needed. The visual observer is another person who watches where the pilot is flying — and walking. Although having the visual observer is no longer required, it may be a good idea depending on the site.

“You can almost fall into a swimming pool” said Landon Phillips, COO of DataWing in a webinar.

Check the equipment check before going into the field
Make sure you have the extra batteries and other equipment you need to make the flight.

[Drool-worthy drones for tower inspections.]

Fly an RF-tolerant bird in RF fields
Know what radio frequencies are being transmitted from the tower before you go.

In the beginning of drone flight in telecom, “no one really took into account for the RF fields and any potential issues that might arise from flying an RF spectrum bird inside an RF field. There was that to be learned,” said Phil Larsen, a drone pilot and industry consultant. “I have spent a lot time and paid attention to make sure the right bird was flying the right mission.”

“I haven’t seen [RF] as a major issue,” said Chris Rittler, CEO of Cape, which has automated flight software platform that includes a flight check that helps drone operators check the RF. “Of course, you need to know what you are doing. You have to be aware of what’s on the tower. The inspectors should be aware of what frequencies are on the tower.”

Check the airspace one more time before flight
Review the airspace in tools, such as Skyward. Skyward is a popular program that shows what is in the air. Find out if someone else is flying near you and something has changed to day of.

Know where you can land safely
Make sure you have it worked out before the flight where the drone can land safely if it has to land quickly.

Weather: No flying in the rain

If it is going to be rain, it’s pretty much a no fly situation,” said Jake Currey of HeloPerspective. “You’re typically not going to fly a drone in the rain anyway, because they’re not made to be flown in wet conditions.” Also, rain can interfere with or ruin the images taken.

Some drones claim to be all-weather drones, but they are expensive and may not be the typical drone used in tower inspections. Even if a drone can stay dry and warm, the wind is still a force that can stop a flight.

Wind can throw some curves into all the best plans for flying a straight line from point A to Point B.

“Wind is going to adjust,” said Carey. “I think [tower inspections] will get to the point where it’s automated. But I think I still think there were quite a ways away from that being the norm.”

Don’t touch the tower
With geofencing and collision avoidance technologies, having a drone accidentally hit a tower is not likely. The tower could be monopole or could have guy wires. The drones have such good cameras on them, that they can zoom in and don’t have to be very close to capture a high-definition image, explained Cape’s Rittler.

Even so, the towers are multi-million-dollar assets. The drone should not fly into the tower.

Use certified pilots, follow the FAA rules for Part 107: Get waivers
Some things go without saying: use FAA’s Part 107 rules and seek a waiver if you may need one, for conditions such as flying above 400 feet or flight near an airport.

Do a debriefs after the mission has been flown
Phillips of DataWing recommends you always do a debriefing following the flight. Discuss perception, decision, execution: what did you perceive went well at the time, did you make the right decision and did you execute the decisions correctly.

ABOUT AUTHOR

Susan Rambo
Susan Rambo
Susan Rambo covers 5G for RCR Wireless News. Prior to RCR Wireless, she was executive editor on EE Times, Embedded.com, EDN.com, Planet Analog and EBNOnline. She served also EE Times’ editor in chief and the managing editor for Embedded Systems Programing magazine, a popular how-to design magazine for embedded systems programmers. Her BA in fine art from UCLA is augmented with a copyediting certificate and design coursework from UC Berkeley and UCSC Extensions, respectively. After straddling the line between art and science for years, science may be winning. She is an amateur astronomer who lugs her telescope to outreach events at local schools. She loves to hear about the life cycle of stars and semiconductors alike. She is based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @susanm_rambo.

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