Drones can help companies in the telecom industry to address some of their most pressing challenges. These include issues related to their infrastructure – specifically maintenance, optimisation and further development in order to cover white spots – as well as pressure to reduce costs. Drones can also become a part of the infrastructure, by playing a role in broadcasting telecommunications signals.
One area of drone technology that telecom operators are beginning to exploit is maintenance. Drones can carry out routine inspections of antennas by taking videos, pictures, readings and measurements. There are numerous advantages of using these devices instead of employees, mainly in the area of safety: Workers climbing towers risk injury or even loss of life, especially in bad weather. Another advantage is lower cost and higher speed. It is quicker to fly a drone than to set up equipment for an employee to climb a tower. T-Mobile demonstrated this when it used drones to conduct a pilot test of antenna masts at a stadium in Utrecht, which took 15 min as opposed to the week that it would have taken with traditional methods. Furthermore, the qualitative data gathered by a drone is sent to the network carrier automatically, allowing instant analysis.
The potential applications of drones in network maintenance significantly exceed those commonly used today. The vehicles’ tasks could be extended beyond routine inspections to include emergency missions – for example, flying over a network to assess damage after a natural disaster. Drones could also play a more active role in maintenance. British Telecom is investigating the possibility of drones carrying out repairs themselves, or delivering parts to engineers
Drones may be used in radio-planning and line-of-sight (LoS) testing between radio towers, for example to identify obstructions (such as trees or buildings) and determine power needs. These findings can then be used, for example, to avoid a certain frequency affected by trees, or to select an appropriate antenna height and site location. Nokia Networks and “du” (the UAE telecom operator) have already tested using drones this way in Dubai. Drones can also analyse the quality and reach of a carrier’s network: Nokia and du used drones carrying smartphones with network testing applications to examine the operator’s network.19 Finally, drones can be used to visualise electromagnetic fields originating from facilities such as mobile phone base stations.
It can also be expected that, in the future, drones will be used for broadcasting telecommunication signals, such as radio, television and internet, both permanently and in temporary roles. For example, drones can be a part of Cell on Wheels (COW) technology, a portable mobile cellular site that provides temporary network and wireless coverage to locations where cellular coverage is minimal or compromised. COWs are used to provide expanded cellular coverage and/or capacity to meet short-term demand, such as at major public events or during natural disasters.
As part of its initiative to provide affordable access to basic Internet services across the world, Facebook is working on creating a linked network of drones beaming internet signals to the earth in large rural areas that lack the infrastructure necessary for connectivity. The devices to be used are Aquila drones which, despite a wingspan equivalent to that of a Boeing 737, will be relatively light (400 kg), solar-powered and able to fly continuously for 3-6 months at an altitude far above that of commercial airplanes, thus avoiding the effects of weather. Facebook merely wants to develop the physical infrastructure required for this project and, subsequently, pass on its operations to traditional network carriers. The company is expected to run trials using a full-size drone later this year, although it has already been testing prototypes. BT is planning to use similar technology to provide temporary broadband and mobile network access when its existing network is disrupted.2