Drones in Telecom: Tower Operations to Benefit from Standardizing Emerging Tech

By: Sam McGuire (5×5 Technologies) and Robert McCoy (Crown Castle)

Since its inception in 2018, the goal of the TIA Drones Ad Hoc Subcommittee (under TIA’s TR-14 Engineering Committee) has been to understand the needs of the tower industry and help usher in the next generation of field services and data analytics via unmanned aerial systems (UAS), otherwise commonly referred to as drones. With over 70 members, the TIA Drones Ad Hoc Subcommittee is comprised of stakeholders from major tower ownership groups, network operators, as well as dozens of the industry’s leading engineering and field service companies.

We have continued to see increased adoption of UAS projects in the tower industry. The catalyst behind the continued adoption has been the rapid technological enhancements enabling their deployments globally as well as increased competition which helps keep costs for the technology under control.

Enhancements in Technology

Flight Automation

The advancements in tower specific flight automation are enabling the collection of comprehensive datasets in short amounts of time. These datasets can be leveraged for comprehensive visual inspections or creating 3D virtual reconstructions commonly referred to as “digital twins”.

Scale and Dimensional Accuracy

Teams have been experimenting with different methods to provide accurate measurements within digital representations of tower assets. Common methods include the use of ground control points (GCPs) or the placement of known dimensional components into the data capture area (scaling sticks, scaling markers, etc). The method of choice will depend on various factors including budget, project timeline, and accuracy requirements.

There are multiple approaches to dimensional scaling validated against large volumes of data at centimeter level accuracy or better. This concept is no longer a theory or future vision. It exists today and operates at scale.

Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

Combining repeatable, automated flight and an accurate dimensional understanding of digital reconstructions has enabled an entirely new era of analytics. While many of the AI models continue to evolve and improve, the capabilities that already exist today are substantial.

From a structural standpoint, systems can now identify defects and deficiencies like tower rust, bent members, or missing components. Some of the highest impact use cases, however, are related to identifying and quantifying network equipment on a tower.

TIA Drones Ad Hoc 2021

The TIA Drones Ad Hoc Subcommittee operates as part of the TR-14 Standards Committee, which is responsible for the ANSI/TIA-222 Standard, “Structural Standard for Antenna Supporting Structures, Antennas and Small Wind Turbine Support Structures” and the ANSI/TIA-322 Standard, “Loading, Analysis and Design Criteria Related to the Installation, Alteration and Maintenance of Communication Structures.”

Given the range of positive impacts that UAS operations are continuing to have on tower management and maintenance, the capabilities of drones and analytical applications surrounding their use qualify UAS operations for inclusion in the next revision of the TIA-222 Standard.

The TR-14 Drones Ad Hoc Subcommittee will be conducting a thorough review of the existing standard and providing the findings, and suggestions to the TR-14 leadership committee for the inclusion of drone operations. To do so, we are collaborating with all stakeholders within the existing Ad Hoc Subcommittee and inviting the participation from anyone with appropriate expertise, knowledge, or interest on the subject. The format of our collaboration will be a monthly call as well as periodic surveys and breakout sessions to explore specific subject matter in greater detail.

It is an exciting time for the wireless industry! On behalf of the TIA Drones Ad Hoc Subcommittee, we invite you to join the conversation and help us create the future of tower analytics.

If you are interested in joining the TIA Drones Ad Hoc Group please reach out to Sam McGuire (5×5 Technologies) or Robert McCoy (Crown Castle) or you can reach out to TIA through their friendly membership team at membership@tiaonline.org.



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