Traditionally, tower inspections and surveys have been an expensive and dangerous headache for operators and towercos. Now, drones integration is minimising risks while offering a more detailed coverage of the towers that translates in intelligent data while increasing operational efficiency and reducing cost. vHive has been a pioneer in developing software solutions that allow tower owners to easily deploy drones and obtain data from their assets. In this interview, vHive’s CEO Yariv Geller explains how towercos and MNOs can benefit from drone integration and the key benefits and features of their solution.
TowerXchange: Could you please introduce vHive to our readers?
vHive has been around for two and half years now. Our software solution enables enterprises to deploy drone hives to digitise their field operations and assets.
We work with companies that have substantial field operations, so telecom is a very typical use case for us. Our clients own thousands of telecom towers spread out over an entire country. We help towercos and MNOs to gather operational information on their assets for surveying and inspection purposes; we enable them to digitise their entire asset base, making it easily accessible, creating a continuous digital data flow from the field to the company.
Typically, towercos have been using tower climbers, which is a dangerous and expensive job: they use a camera, a measuring tape or a clinometer to capture very sporadic pieces of information and fill them into a written report that goes to the engineering and QA teams, who use it to make decisions.
Our solution enables towercos and MNOs to equip their field personnel with drones so that they can safely inspect from the ground while getting a detailed, 360 degrees coverage of their towers in about 30 minutes. We provide them with both 2D and 3D models of the tower that they can use for engineering and measurement as well as for QA and inspection purposes.
TowerXchange: For those who aren’t familiar with this technology, how can drones help towercos and MNOs?
Drones are great in systematically collecting high-resolution information from dangerous, radiation exposed and inaccessible places. Drones obtain a bird eye view from any position in 3D space, as opposed to a more limited view that a person would have from the ground or even when climbing the tower.
You can now buy highly capable, low cost, off-the-shelf drones that democratise high-quality data rather than relying on satellite imagery, airplanes or people climbing to dangerous places. And so, over the past two to three years, many organisations started exploring the benefits of drones as part of their daily tool set. Many of them started with a person in the company who was a drone enthusiast, or perhaps they brought an external third party with the proper expertise. Enterprises quickly realised that drones were a very powerful tool to obtain high quality data and started seeking ways to expand drone operations throughout the company.
The focus has now turned to enterprise scalability, which requires several capabilities.
The first requirement for scalability is autonomy, meaning autonomous flight controlled by software. This way, the company does not need to rely on a highly trained individual to fly the drone. Instead, you have a computer that is piloting the drones with precision and a person in the field operating a mission and monitoring safely. This approach enables your entire field operations staff to operate drones easily, with the press of a button.
The second requirement is the ability to intelligently manage the drone’s data acquisition in a way that fits the use case. It is not just about a drone flying from one place to another but also directing the drone to cover telecom infrastructure in a very deliberate and precise way: capturing imagery around the tower at multiple angles and multiple altitudes with precise overlap, in a way that generates a coherent set of data that fully covers the tower. The solution also needs to handle typical telecom structure types such as monopole, lattice and guyed wire towers and events such as radio communication interference, safe navigation around the tower and manage drone battery swaps when needed.
Once data is captured, you need an IT infrastructure to manage the vast amounts of data, especially when covering a large number of sites and performing repeat surveys. You need a system that manages this amount of data allowing you to retrieve it, analyse it and compare it over time.
Finally, risk mitigation and adhering to regulation are critical for our customers. We address the issue from two perspectives. An audit trail: we always log what drones are in the field, what they have done, where and when, who’s operating them, what events may have occurred et cetera. The second part is enforcing regulations and not allowing human errors. For example, the system creates a geofence around the tower preventing the drones from going outside that area or above a certain altitude or near a no-fly-zone. The system also ensures field operators go through enterprise checklists and are fit to operate.
We provide a cloud-based platform that enables our customers to manage the entire data flow from the field; it enables telecom companies to easily plan missions, autonomously execute them with drones in the field and get reconstructed 2D and 3D data products. We also provide a workspace for analysing the data in different useful ways.
TowerXchange: Can you explain the concept of aerial surveys and how is the data that you collect helping telecoms companies?
We provide full, precise visual coverage of the towers by generating a 3D model and linking it to imagery with a resolution of up to three to four millimetres per pixel. We also have tools to provide high accuracy in the models that are generated so you can perform engineering measurements, whereas previously you had to bring costly surveyors to the field to do that kind of work over a much longer period of time.
TowerXchange: How can your solution be used in the different phases of a telecom infrastructure project?
Our solution can be applied already in the site construction stage. We work with civil engineering firms providing them with the means to do area site surveys. Similarly, towercos and operators can survey sites they plan to deploy their equipment on for planning purposes. The site survey would generate a full coverage map, the topography and a full 3D model of the area where you would be constructing on. Then, you can precisely measure location, distances, volumes of land et cetera. That is all in the pre-construction planning phase.
Later, we provide additional surveys along the construction process tracking progress against the original plan. Finally, we provide a site survey capturing the site “as-built” in a full 3D model view, documenting the site in the system, covering the entire workflow of the construction process.
In the operational phase, we provide repeated surveys and inspections. Whenever you add or change a feature on the tower or add a new piece of equipment it requires engineering checks and approvals this can now be easily done. Another type of activity is a post-disaster survey. If you have a storm or hurricane you would need to verify the tower and see that the equipment is aligned as well as checking if there has been any damage to the site which needs to be repaired. QA teams can also inspect the tower for any wear and tear or even birds nesting in the antenna.
TowerXchange: How do you translate the data you gather into actionable intelligence and how does it ultimately drive operational efficiency?
We bring a full, manageable, online dataset vs the many small pieces of information that our customers typically get, in a format that is hard to manage. We bring high-resolution imagery and a way to manage it. We don’t just bring a pile of photos, we bring oriented, multi-angle photos with a 3D navigation interface, linked to an accurately measurable 3D model.
We also provide tools like a 360 photosphere for line-of-sight analysis and means to compare surveys over time to identify change.
TowerXchange: What are the advantages of your aerial surveying and inspection system compared to other traditional monitoring, on site solutions?
We are enabling the personnel to avoid climbing towers, safely stay of the ground and to capture information that is an order of magnitude more detailed than a person measuring specific features. We are taking the industry a leap forward by providing a digital documentation and analysis platform for field operations.
TowerXchange: How does aviation regulation affect your operations and how this varies on the different countries you operate?
We operate in the United States, Europe and Asia. By now, in many parts of the world, the law is fairly accommodating in the sense that there are proper regulations in place and it is clear which guidelines companies need to follow to use drones as part of their operations. The regulations are not restrictive to anything required in order to survey cell towers.
Typical regulation does not allow flights above 100-130 metres, which is more than enough for tower surveying needs. You should not fly in densely-populated areas either, but again towers are typically located in private, remote or unpopulated areas, so this is not a problem. You are not allowed to fly in “no fly zones”, which are the vicinity of airports and other restricted areas such as military bases. Finally, the person in the field needs to see the drone and maintain a line of sight with the drone. None of these requirements present an obstacle for tower surveying.
Most countries require a very simple certification process for your employees such as an online test to ensure they understand regulations and requirements.
The US FAA defined such regulatory requirements last year and the rest of the world is now following suite. Just recently, India who had restricted drones until now, has defined a drone policy, opening the sky for drone operators.
From vHive’s perspective, we can work in any market. You buy low cost, off-the shelf drones (we can recommend which), connect them to our software platform and you are good to go. All you need from us are user names and password and our mobile app so you can operate in the field.
TowerXchange: Can you share some success stories?
We work with two of the largest cell tower companies in the United States. They have tens of thousands of assets that need to be surveyed several times every year. Our clients wanted a digital transformation in their organisations, moving from the long lead-time, cost and limited data provided by current techniques to a fully digitalised database of their assets. The goal is for anybody in the company to be able to go online, type the number of the tower and get a full 3D model of the asset with measurements, annotations and precise high-resolution information.
This is a revolution for them because it massively reduces their operational cost as well as improves productivity – there’s a big difference between having somebody climbing the tower with the associated high insurance costs and small pieces of information collected to having a drone in the field that safely collects all available data within 30 minutes. These companies now have a digital representation of the tower infrastructure online, so they can review, measure or inspect every aspect of the tower using a web browser at any time.
We are seeing this approach as a growing practice across the industry. We see how our different costumers appreciate the fact that they can now use very affordable hardware with our system to do the task and easily train their field technicians to use drones as part of their toolset. We’ve built a very user-friendly system, requiring only half a day training to a group of people in the existing workforce. These people now have the power to accomplish much more in the field, doing things faster while generating smart and effective results.