AT&T: Drone tower inspections increase safety, could eventually save money

LAS VEGAS -- Carriers are increasingly viewing drones as a new way to ramp up data consumption and perhaps even temporarily extend their networks where towers don’t reach. But ask AT&T’s Art Pregler about drones and one of the first things he talks about is increasing safety.

Pregler oversees AT&T’s internal drone effort, which aims to use the devices to monitor towers, identify potential problems – if necessary – and to submit a work order for repairs. The strategy, which has been in trials for weeks, could eliminate the need for the company to send out a truck and have a technician climb the tower, which always involves some degree of risk.

“Using facial recognition and AI, they know what a defect looks like. For example, a problem with a connector, or with weather-proofing, a drone would see that and could issue a trouble ticket,” Pregler said this week here at the CTIA Super Mobility 2016 trade show.

Drones can also perform tasks such as looking for the nests of protected birds, which can’t be disturbed. Otherwise AT&T must have a biologist monitor sites to determine whether such nests exist. And drones could eventually be used to make simple repairs, he continued, by clamping on to the structures themselves.

AT&T doesn’t fly the drones but instead uses several drone operators across the country that fly their own vehicles. And while the strategy will almost certainly save money in the long run, it typically costs more to get a drone operator to a site than to send a technician.

Source: AT&T

“Right now our goal is to break even,” Pregler said. “Our goal is to do it as cheaply with a drone” as it is to get a field employee to the site.

That’s likely to change very soon, however, because AT&T will have many more people to hire for such jobs. Until recently, the FAA required “non-hobbyist” operators to be licensed pilots of some sort. So getting a professional drone pilot to a site often meant buying a seat on an airplane.

But the FAA in June adopted new rules – dubbed Part 107 – that enable non-licensed pilots to fly drones professionally once they pass an online test. So the pool of potential applicants for drone inspections should grow rapidly.

Other regulatory hurdles remain, however. For instance, the FAA still requires drone pilots maintain a line of sight with their vehicles, which could make inspections difficult in areas that aren’t easily accessible.

But such concerns are likely to be addressed as the popularity of drones increases. Meanwhile, drone technology is advancing rapidly, and prices continue to fall as the market begins to scale. So it’s likely that other carriers will follow AT&T’s lead and begin to use the gadgets to help maintain their networks.

“We’re seeing a lot of advances in hardware and a lot in sensors,” Pregler said. “The next big milestone will be when the FAA allows (usage) beyond line of sight.”

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