How Drones are Transforming Telecoms, Paving the Way for 5G


From agriculture to transport, insurance, and infrastructure, the enterprise use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, is on the rise. PwC estimates that the total market value of drone-powered enterprise solutions will exceed $127bn, with the value of drones to communication service providers accounting for a nearly $20bn slice of the pie.

For telecommunication companies (telcos), drones open the door to a range of opportunities. Drones make it possible to perform remote engineering and network planning tasks, automate tower inspections, and enhance measurement of wireless coverage and performance. They will help accelerate the rollout of 5G networks and enable new use cases leveraging 5G connectivity.

Automating Inspections

Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and tower companies (towercos) have historically inspected telecom towers manually. It’s a dangerous and cumbersome process, and the data from those inspections often get siloed in USB drives or on individual laptops.

Manual inspections are usually conducted on a limited portion of the tower, meaning that many towercos and MNOs don’t have a complete record of the equipment mounted on their towers, or comprehensive data on whether towers have available space to host new equipment.

As a result, these companies often find themselves without a central digital repository for processing insights – and no easy way to gain meaningful, portfolio-wide intelligence.

Automated drone inspections offer a powerful alternative. Using high-precision flight planning, automated capture and intelligent data processing, towercos and MNOs can automate the tower inspection process and use off-the-shelf drones to autonomously survey their assets.

Several MNOs, including Docomo, AT&T, and Verizon, are already using drones for these purposes. In the Netherlands, T-Mobile has inspected over 5,000 antennas with drones, and in the Czech Republic, electricity provider CEZ is using drones to inspect insulators on high voltage transmission lines.

Automation makes it possible for drones to collect data that is repeatable, consistent, and optimized for post-processing and analytics algorithms.

A complex tower structure needs to be captured in a specific way in order for the data pipelines to generate good results. In aggregate, the data is used to create 3D model digital twins. Repeat captures tell the story of changes in tower condition and available inventory over time.

With the proper tools, towercos and MNOs can extract measurements and angles from these models, export them into a variety of other tools for additional analysis, and apply machine learning to detect rust and inventory. Automation makes these valuable business insights available across an entire tower portfolio.

Monetising Drone Operations

Telcos have deep expertise in connectivity, cloud computing, and big data, and already have network infrastructure in place. This means they are uniquely positioned to monetise enterprise drone operations and become expert providers of automated drone solutions to private enterprises and the public sector.

Many industries outside telecommunications require asset and infrastructure inspections but are not equipped to build an in-house drone program. Instead, they outsource this maintenance and inspection work to Drone Service Providers (DSPs).

As drone automation increases, 5G is deployed worldwide, and the regulatory environment enables BVLOS operations, telcos will begin leasing their prime edge real estate to the next-generation of drone technology: drones-in-a-box.

Drones-in-a-box will live at tower sites and autonomously conduct missions in their vicinity, including tower inspections. They’ll then return to their towers, where they can recharge and send data to the cloud. Drone-in-a-box technology will require high connectivity and access to edge resources that telcos are poised to provide.

Another potential opportunity for telcos lies in the processing of data. According to Vodafone, because telcos already possess the cloud infrastructure and network capacity needed to manage, store, and archive high volumes of data, it won’t take much for them to meet the need for data live-streaming, analyse drone-collected data, and provide their customers with unique insights.

Drones can also help telcos develop and deliver new digital and IoT services and solutions. Take, for example, the lucrative 5G segment. According to the GSMA’s latest Mobile Economy report, operators will spend $1.1 trillion globally in CAPEX between now and 2025, 80% of which will be on 5G networks. These 5G networks will require telcos to build, inspect, and maintain more sites, which will ultimately serve as locations for drone-in-a-box technology. Drones are a flying IoT and will use 5G and edge infrastructure to thrive.

Drones automation and traffic management also present telcos with multiple data-intensive applications to catalyse subscriptions to their 5G networks. This is likely the exact thinking behind Verizon’s push to become the first carrier to connect one million 5G drone flights.

Airspace Intelligence Required

Before telcos can seize on the efficiency and revenue-generating opportunities that drones provide, they must first be able to conduct safe and compliant drone operations. Drones fly in low-altitude airspace, which can introduce new safety and compliance concerns.

Participating in the airspace system requires operators to follow all national airspace regulations and comply with any airspace advisories or takeoff and landing restrictions. Operators should plan their missions according to real-time, contextual airspace information, and telcos should monitor each drone flight’s conformance to its approved flight plan.

In addition to following all public airspace regulations, drone flights should be conducted in compliance with the telco’s own operational procedures and security policies.

Telcos should consider how they will manage flights over sensitive assets, which may require them to use custom geofences to create enterprise drone operation zones and assign each zone specific geo-spatial and operational rules.

Once those rules are in place, telcos will need to be able to review, authorize, or auto-reject flight plans based on those rules and other factors such as operator type, flight geography, or time of day.

Telcos should also consider how they will establish different flight permissions for managers, employees, and contractors and generate a consistent record of flight history, data, and compliance.

The right UAS operations management platform makes all that possible. With an enterprise-specific solution in place, telcos can get the comprehensive airspace situational awareness and flight and data automation services they need to conduct safe and compliant drone operations at scale, generate valuable business insights, and pave the way for 5G rollout.