The Rural Connectivity Group (RCG) has been thinking outside the box and utilising an innovative drone solution when scoping out rural areas to build new cell towers. To date, five new cell sites on the West Coast have been scoped via drone with great success.
When building a new cell tower, engineers first need to work out at what height to install a digital microwave radio dish, which is required to provide linking to another existing cell site. Previously, to ascertain line-of-sight to an existing tower, a cherry picker or a crane had to be driven out to the new planned site and an engineer raised on the platform to confirm if they could see the existing tower using binoculars.
Using a cherry picker and binoculars provides plenty of challenges in New Zealand conditions – the weather has to be spot on, as clear visibility of the other cell tower is required. Often engineers were having to travel long distances, and cherry pickers were unable to get access to the rugged rural landscape. It could take an entire day to scope one location, it was time consuming, labour intensive and costly.
The engineering team at the RCG has been working closely with a local drone company, RPA Systems, to develop the technology and equip drones with microwave radio transceivers. In a New Zealand industry first, RCG has been successfully using drones to assist with scoping and engineering design of new cell tower sites.
A small team of drone operators can now be deployed to site to quickly determine what the optimal height is to install microwave equipment.
The drones are used to take high resolution, panoramic photographs, which give the radio engineers a 360 degree bird’s-eye view from the planned height and location. Aerial photographs then produce a high resolution landscape and terrain data view, which can be overlaid in Graphical Information Software (GIS) tools and Google Earth. This is particularly useful for the civil build team, as it confirms where trees and buildings are, where the power source comes in, the elevation of the land and where the terrain slopes. All of this detail helps determine if the site location is the best place to build. As an added extra, the drones record video while being rotated in the air – allowing a panoramic view of the area.
The benefits of using drones are significant. They reduce health and safety risks, as no one is climbing an existing structure or being raised up in a cherry picker. Less time is being spent out on site, reducing the duration and number of visits to the landowner’s property. The planning team now have access to photos and video to check terrain and other site location details. The drone only requires one person to fly it and the equipment is light and easy to carry onto site. Drones can also be flown in bad visual conditions – they will still be able to pick up the radio signal, instead of relying on line-of-sight via binoculars.
The drone mitigates a lot of risk around building a new cell tower – it quickly confirms that a transmission link can be installed at that exact location and height. And if there are obstructions and a signal isn’t being received, you can quickly and easily adjust the drones flight path and test another site location.
The RCG has been providing landowners with the photos and videos that the drone produces – it gives them a good idea of what to expect when the new structure is built. It also allows them a detailed look at their land from a view they might not have seen before, and can assist them with checking areas that may need maintenance.
The drones will also be used to do inspections on existing cell towers – they can assist in checking for any issues or maintenance that may need to be undertaken.
The RCG and RPA Systems ensure that all regulations around flying drones and Civil Aviation requirements are met, they are not flown over streets or private property, in any “no-fly zones”, or where livestock may be affected.