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Communication companies with cell and radio towers, cities with water towers, and other industries that use towers as part of their daily operations— All of these towers require regular maintenance, and before the maintenance can be performed, a preliminary survey must be conducted to determine potential safety hazards, where the work needs to occur, what maintenance is needed and what equipment is required to perform the task at hand. With this in mind, more and more surveys are being conducted via drones as a quick and efficient way to prepare for the upcoming task.

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When it comes to tower surveys, a drone can help identify potential climbing hazards, find structural damage, and help tower inspectors understand the tools they need prior to climbing.

Once this information has been gathered, a tower inspector can follow up and address the issues revealed in the data, if any.

Drone surveys serve to reduce the amount of time personnel are on the tower, increasing their efficiency and keeping them safe.

Why a Drone

Drones are changing the game in the communications tower industry from a safety, quality and efficiency perspective. We are still in an early-adoption stage right now in the drone industry, and many companies need to be convinced of the value of using a drone instead of a person when it comes to commercial applications, like surveying a tower.

Here are the primary reasons why a drone is a good choice than a person when it comes to surveying a tower:

  • Safety. Of course! If a drone crashes, the resulting loss can be measured in dollars, not in life or livelihood. The less time a person is on a tower, the better.

  • Speed. Not only is a drone a safer option, but it can also do the job much quicker than a person. You don’t have to think too hard to compare the speed of a drone in flight to that of a person climbing.

  • Thoroughness. A drone can collect enough data in a few short flights to create a thorough 3D map of the tower being inspected. In addition, new software is being created by companies like Intel that can take a 3D map and identify changes from a prior 3D map, immediately revealing places where degradation may have happened since the previous inspection.

  • Cost. Liability insurance is expensive, and so are the personnel costs associated with training someone to do a manual tower inspection, as well as the hours required to actually do the inspections. Since drones are faster and much less risky in terms of liability, they are more cost-effective.

  • Identifying Hazards. Beehives and bird nests can be found in towers, and encountering hazards like these hundreds of feet in the air can be extremely dangerous, both for the person and for the animal. In some instances, the bird in question may be endangered, and disturbing its nest could negatively impact the likelihood of its survival. With a drone, these concerns are removed.

Drone Tower Survey Use Cases

This video from the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) provides a good overview of why and how drones are useful for tower inspections.

Use Cases 

  • Identifying environmental or other hazards before climbing (bee, birds, structural damage, etc.)

  • Identifying damaged areas

  • Pre-work inspection to determine the tools and parts needed ahead of a climb, to avoid time wasted returning to the ground to find the right tool

  • In the case of a structural emergency, you can investigate the structure’s integrity before you climb, and find out if it’s safe to climb at all

Case Study

This video from the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE) provides a good overview of why and how drones are useful for tower inspections.

Project Goal: Identify, analyze, and design a new antenna mount for the tower.

Mission: A professional drone service company located in Seattle, WA, was hired to survey a telecommunications tower and create a 3D point cloud that could be used as a model for designing a new antenna mount for the tower.

Timeline: It took only one day to capture the images and process them into a precise 3D point cloud (shown below), which focused on the upper rad center mounts, wireless-panel style antennas, and associated mounts.

Project Deliverable: A 3D densified point cloud created on Pix4Dmapper (shown below).

Case Study: Cell Tower Inspection

Project Goal: Collect highly detailed visual data regarding the condition of a cell phone tower.

Mission: The Unmanned Vehicle  team used a drone to collect clear, accurate visual data on the state of a cell phone tower. Using a camera that allows for high accuracy while zooming, they were able to fly at a significant distance from the cell tower and still collect clear, usable images. Skip to 1:07 in the video below to see how the pilot uses the “point of interest” flight mode to circle the cell phone tower, maintaining an equal distance from the tower while collecting detailed visual data.

Timeline: The timeline is unclear, but it seems that all of the data needed was collected in a single flight.

Deliverables: Visual data that can be used to analyze the condition of the cell tower.

Video: Transmission Tower Inspection

This video shows footage from a test flight conducted for the inspection of a transmission tower. It’s important to note the zoom used here—at the beginning of the video you can see that the drone is flying at a fairly significant distance away from the tower, and the pilot zooms in to get clear, accurate visual data on the transmission tower.

Zoom is a crucial feature for cameras used in tower inspections, since, due to guy wires and electromagnetic fields, you want to avoid flying close to the tower you’re surveying. Note that the pilot switches from digital zoom to optical zoom at 1:36, providing a clearer resulting image.

Video: Power Line Pylon Inspection

OK, power line pylons aren’t exactly towers, but they present many of the same technical challenges as surveying towers. Doing manual inspections of the pylons that support power lines can be incredibly difficult and dangerous, especially when they cover mountainous terrain.

This video shows how inspectors in China’s Yunnan Province are using drones to make their jobs faster and more efficient. Using a drone, inspectors have gone from inspecting one or two pylons a day to inspecting ten to twenty a day. This is a good example of the efficiency and time savings of utilizing Drone technology to conduct aerial surveys.

My Tower Inspection Drone:

DJI Matrice 300 RTK

With Smart Inspection Technology, the Matrice 300 RTK, combined with the Zenmuse H20 Camera System (x200 zoom), I can deliver crisp, clean 20 MP images and 4K/30fps videos from a safe distance.

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