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How Airwave, a Motorola Solutions Company, use drones to inspect their telecommunications structures

Background

Airwave delivers the world-class mission-critical communication service used by the emergency services, along with a dynamic product portfolio of Networks, Control Rooms, Devices, Applications and Analytics. With every emergency service in every region of Great Britain relying on Airwave’s Network and Services, their dedicated service continues to evolve to meet their customer’s changing needs. As part of this evolution, last year Airwave undertook commercial drone training to enhance the efficiency of their structural inspections.

We sat down with Darren Trembath, Safety & Environment Manager, to find out how Airwave have integrated drone operations into their business model since completing training with Uplift Drones and being granted CAA PfCO approval in October 2018:

How do drones factor into Airwave’s day to day operations?

We have a large amount of base radio sites around the country, similar to a mobile phone company we have lots of masts – we have about just over 4000 sites from the Outer Hebrides and Shetland Islands down to the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall – so we are countrywide and we need to inspect those properties to make sure they are still safe and everything’s still there that should be there.

Sometimes, we lose signal because you need line of sight between one mast and the next and need to prove that the dish at one mast can see the dish at the other. It’s basically getting around to do the maintenance tasks across our network and with the Health and Safety at Work Act [1974] the best way of reducing the risks at height is not to climb. So, we thought drones can give us another option. It’s ideal that we don’t have to climb as much because every time we climb, we send two people but now we send a drone operator, so we only have to send the one person. We are saving time, money and resources.

How did you decide that UAS inspection was the better method for Airwave to pursue and how does UAS inspection compare to your previous methods of structural inspection?

In 2016 we had a company come in to trial whether [drone inspection] would work and to do a sample inspection on about 50 sites throughout the year, just to see the kind of quality and what it was about from them. And then we decided off the back of that that we would train our own pilots and purchase our own drones.

In terms of cost savings, if we were to climb and complete a structural inspection it would cost two engineers and they would probably only be able to do a maximum of 2 site surveys per day (sometimes 1).

Whereas using the drone as a survey tool, we only need to send one engineer and we can complete up to 5 site surveys in a day if programmed correctly.

Image: Visual representation of Airwave’s cost-savings

 

Which platform(s) do you currently operate in your fleet? What’s the most beneficial platform within your kit and why would you recommend it?

We went for Yuneec and we’ve got 12 drones so far, which are Typhoon H520 drones and we were recommended them from our sister company in the US. They use them specifically for surveying their telecoms equipment because they are less susceptible to the emissions coming away from the dish and they do not record all of our data up into the cloud, as we need to make sure our data is as secure as possible.

What were the deciding factors in Airwave beginning the process to gain a PfCO? Why did you choose to introduce drones into your company’s strategy?

We decided we wanted to do it properly so we looked into what we needed to do to have our own drone fleet. We wanted to make sure it would fit into our safety management systems so we researched the [Permission for Commercial Operations] PfCO course. We wanted all of the pilots to really be standalone and to have the knowledge to do the risk assessments and undertake the surveys safely. Most of our engineers work as a ‘one-man band’ and most of the time they don’t see any other people, so it’s really [important] to give them the skills to do that.

How many staff have been through CAA-approved PfCO training and how are they applying their new drone pilot skills within your business operations?

We trained 12 [staff] last year and we have now got another 6 booked to give us a bit more flexibility, so by the end of the year we should have 18 trained engineers. It’s definitely growing due to the success of last year and we want more flexibility to be able to make sure we can do all the inspections. We average about 1800 inspections a year, some of them will still be climbing, but to reach that target we are using more and more drones.

Image: Airwave, Structural Drone Inspection

After completing PfCO drone training with Uplift Drones, how did your engineers view their training experience?

All of our staff couldn’t speak highly enough about Uplift training and came back talking about the professionalism and knowledge of the trainers and how they all seem to have a previous flying background in addition to being a professional drone pilot. The practicality of the training has been really good, with the videos and theory all mapping in together, and they came back saying it’s one of the best courses they’ve attended.

They all were quite surprised at how in depth it is, I think that was a shock as at first, they might’ve thought they could just have a bit of fun flying a drone but then when they found out about all of the paperwork and what’s behind it to make sure you do it properly, that was an eye opener! The pre-course information [eLearning] is very useful so they did that to prepare, as all of our guys opted to do the in-person course to get the benefits from shared information in the classroom.

Have you encountered any issues with your current drone operations? Are there any limitations within your drone operations at the moment?

We’ve had a couple of [onsite] limitations in terms of local Police forces, but when we’ve presented them with [our Operations Manual and] all the permissions it’s been fine. Most of the landowners involved, when we’ve contacted them to tell them this is what we want to do they’ve been fine and usually they just ask, “oh, while you’re there can you take a photograph of my house please?”, so we’ve not really had any push backs [gaining landowner’s permissions] so far. It’s all about being open and honest, as long as you’ve contacted them well before and not just turned up then it’s fine.

How do you see drone technology within your industry and/or company strategy in the immediate future?

I think we’re definitely using [drones] more this year than we did last year, as previously there was some scepticism when we first introduced them about the quality of the photographs and the surveys we would get; “Is it going to be as good as somebody climbing the mast and putting a spanner on a bolt?” But with the photographs we’re getting back now we can actually see two or three treads missing, so the quality we’re getting back is superb and it’s proven in that way. The line of sight surveys, seeing from one mast to another, is also proving very useful and that’s going to increase. It’s never going to replace climbing because [drones] can’t do the repairs for us but it’s definitely another tool in our toolbox for completing the maintenance.

Summary

Airwave are leading the way for UK telecommunications providers using drone technology to improve the efficiency across their structural inspections and maintenance. Carrying out their regular infrastructure inspections using drone surveys ensures operational integrity by ensuring any structural defects are quickly identified and repairs and maintenance are conducted safely, with less requirement for their engineers to climb. Aerial surveys are also proven to reduce maintenance costs, whilst saving their valuable resources including time and manpower.

If you’d like to find out how drones can be applied to your business operations, contact our experts on 0330 111 8800 today or submit your details below and we’ll be in touch:

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