Drones for Wireless – Safety & Efficiency
In any industry, there is continual progress made towards employee safety and overall process efficiency. Technological advances often help in achieving this goal. Unmanned small aircraft or drones could be considered one of these new tools for wireless network engineering and operations.
In the wireless industry, tower climbing could be considered one of the world’s most dangerous jobs. What if the amount of tower climbing could be reduced by 20% without eliminating the need for the tower climb to begin with? Small drones, unmanned aerial aircraft, or quadcopters are great tools for doing visual inspection on towers, sides of buildings, and difficult to access antenna locations. These amazing machines have the ability to go up and down numerous time to do audits, inspections, and preliminary work analysis. Even before a climber sets foot on the tower, they could have a solid idea and imagery of the top of the tower, thus minimizing risks and unnecessary trips up and down the tower. This insight will ensure technicians bring up the proper tools, equipment, and parts to complete the job the first time. The less time on the tower, the less time for accidents to occur.
Drones will not replace the need for tower climbs, but they could reduce the amount required. In addition to towers lets look at some other potential applications in wireless network engineering and operations:
- Tower Audits/Inspection: Drones have the ability with imagery to see the antenna types, azimuths, MDT settings and connector situations. Visual inspection of the complete installation also allows for potential swapped feeders, weather-proofing, and general equipment conditions.
- EME Rooftop Studies: Without accessing the site, a EME monitor may be swung around and measure the complete rooftop, public access areas, and determine signage requirements through imagery.
- Access to Antennas: Often antennas are mounted above or below accessible height on building installations. The ability to access these antenna locations via machine saves time and minimizes climber requirements.
- Bird Nest Inspection (Active Nesting): Certain countries require assessment of nesting birds on towers. This means prior to any work starting on the tower, validation that there is not active nesting birds at the location. Quick documented imagery of the tower top allows for this to be done quickly prior to scheduling required work crews.
- Manual Difficult Data Collection: The ability to collect phone and/or scanner data at venues, small cell locations pedestrian locations, and waterfront areas where typically labor intensive walk, bike or boat testing would have been required previously.
- Microwave Design LOS / Visual Analysis of Candidates: Many sites require microwave backhaul. These may include traditional macro sites or new small cell locations. With microwave backhaul requiring LOS, doing imagery and LOS inspection during initial survey allows for definitive decisions on microwave usage prior to
- Search Ring Candidate Inspection & Height Study Requirements: RF Engineers have the ability to determine height requirements and do visual inspection of candidates at their planned heights rather than relying solely on prediction and satellite imagery often utilized today.
- Site and Sector Imagery: Optimization teams need to know what their antennas can see. The ability to know antenna obstructions or near field interference issues is critical to optimizing site configurations and tilts.
- RF Building Altitude Measurements (Scanner & Device): In dense urban environments, often operators are looking for what the RF Environment is on higher floors. With access to buildings often limited, knowing what cells are covering just outside each building floor.
Figure 1: LOS, Tower HW Inspection, and bird nesting checks
With any technology there will always be people and organizations that abuse it, however drones have the ability to bring many positives to wireless networks if utilized correctly. From the environmental and physical safety operational aspects to improved RF design and optimization techniques to benefit the subscriber, drones have potential to make networks better.