Transforming Telecom Inspection with Intelligent Drones

By | 3 minute read | October 27, 2016

Transforming Telecom Inspection with Intelligent Drones

In ten short years, the Internet of Things has made the leap from conceptual to actual. Early predictions for IoT that once seemed out of this world are starting to feel more like an understatement. As the IoT becomes ubiquitous, we see a steady push to adapt IoT technologies to industry-specific applications to save money and time, and simplify operations complexities. Unique industry applications are enabling enterprises to deliver solutions and services that give their clients and partners distinct operating advantages.

Case in point, autonomous drones can now gather data from cell towers and other structures at the push of a button – eliminating the cost and danger of human inspection. A decade ago, tower inspections with drones would have seemed like something out of a science fiction movie. Just a few years ago, a drone autonomously mapping its flight path and gathering data would have seemed a far-off promise. With recent developments in cognitive computing, an autonomous and situationally aware UAV is a reality – and one company is already using IBM Watson IoT technology to put these drones in the field. 

There are 5 key areas in which the automated UAV is showing great promise:

  •                Detection of loose cables, defects in equipment, corrosion
  •                Orientation measurement of antennas to a +/- 2-degree margin
  •                Line of sight confirmation between cell masts
  •                Measurement of cell size in 3D
  •                Measurement of radio strength in 3D

Autonomous flight paths at the push of a button

You might think the first thing you need is an experienced pilot who can operate a drone, but cognitive IoT will make UAV operation as easy as the press of a button. A Watson IoT powered drone could simply execute a predefined flight path around the tower to be inspected, or create an improved autonomous flight path based on its own observations. The operator merely brings the drone to the job and oversees the operation, letting the drone do the work. The drone flies in a sequence ensuring it does not miss any of the cell tower’s components and gathers data through sensors in the drone along with images captured by the camera. This data is uploaded to the IBM Watson IoT Platform which applies analytics to the data, allowing the discovery of any anomalies in real-time.

By enabling these unmanned inspections, the number of cell towers that can be inspected increases when compared to existing methods. Inspecting cell towers with a UAV is also a much safer method than the old alternative of a worker scaling and inspecting the tower. Another huge advantage is that human error is taken out of the equation – people can overlook potential problems, but analyzing the data with IBM’s Watson services in the cloud ensures nothing is missed.

Introducing the Aerialtronics drone, powered by Watson

Aerialtronics is using the IBM Watson IoT Platform as the drone’s data management backend to gather unstructured data and unlock the value of it with predictive analytics.

The camera images as well as the metadata (time, drone/camera location, orientation, job ID, etc.) are captured in real-time and uploaded to the cloud and processed by the Watson IoT Platform. Watson’s Visual Recognition capabilities is used to automate several visual inspection tasks such as:

  • Identifying the network components (antenna dishes, cabling, etc.)
  • Equipment Brand
  • Equipment Type
  • Equipment serial codes
  • Unauthorized Equipment
  • Assessing the conditions of the network components (checking for loose cables, corrosion, etc.)

It is also possible to integrate with a predictive maintenance solution to automate the ordering of equipment as soon as the drone realizes something is needed. The drone hardware not only makes it easy for the end-user but it also simplifies the back-end process as well. There’s no need to read a list of items which need to be fixed on a cell tower, needed items are automatically ordered and are on the truck the next day for the repair personnel.

Any follow-up actions deemed necessary such as creating job tickets, creating component orders, and job scheduling can be immediately and automatically executed from the Watson IoT Platform.

The collaboration has shown great potential for lowering operating costs and increasing safety and quality in telecom tower inspections. As these systems continue to prove their value in the field and be adopted by the telecom industry, the traditional dangers of tower inspections will become a thing of the past and efficiency will skyrocket leading to a huge cost savings.

Aerialtronics at IBM World of Watson

The Aerialtronics drone powered by Watson IoT will be in the Cognitive Concourse at IBM World of Watson in Las Vegas at the end of this month. If you’ll be there, be sure to come check it out – we’ll actually be flying it on the show floor!