AT&T sees cost savings with drone inspections of cell towers

Carrier relies on new federal rule, Part 107, that permits commercial uses of drones

flying cell tower
Credit: NetworkWorld

AT&T expects to save money by using drones instead of workers to inspect its 65,000 cellular transmission towers nationwide.

Part of the savings will occur as the cost of deploying drones drops because of new Federal Aviation Administration regulations that expand the use of drones for commercial uses.

The service provider wants to hire contractors using drones in all 50 states to inspect the towers. These towers, often more than 100 feet high and with components sometimes out of the reach of workers who climb to the top, require constant refinements and attention, an AT&T official said Tuesday.

AT&T drone 2 AT&T

AT&T is using drones to inspect its cell towers high above the ground and can feed live video to an engineer in a remote office. 

"With 65,000 cell sites, we are constantly visiting them to upgrade them by adding radios or capability, and those needs are constant. We envision a lot of opportunity for drones," said Art Pregler, unmanned aircraft systems program director for AT&T. AT&T first announced the program in February and offered more details last week in a blog, although Pregler provided more details in an interview.

Pregler's primary role at AT&T is director of national mobility systems but he first started working with military drones in the early 1980s with the U.S. Air Force.

"Now that drones are transitioning from the military to the commercial side, we'll see more use cases and adoption coming in," Pregler said. "Currently, workers have been climbing towers, and over time we see drone inspections saving us money."

During an initial ramp-up period with drones, AT&T will break even on its costs, he said. The FAA adopted the new Part 107 regulation in June, "those rules are changing the cost component to using drones, with pricing coming down and we see it moving in a positive direction for our costs," Pregler said. He declined to specify the costs.

Part 107 will help "harness new innovations safely, to spur job growth, advance critical scientific research and save lives," the FAA said in a statement. The regulations are effective Aug. 29.

The rule could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and generate 100,000 jobs over the next decade, according to the FAA. The rule is designed to minimize risks to other aircraft, as well to people and property on the ground. The regulations apply to unmanned drones under 55 pounds that are "conducting non-hobbyist operations," the FAA said.

In addition to cell tower inspections, AT&T is researching the potential for using drones to beef up the service provider's LTE network for disaster relief, sports and other events where smartphone use can crowd cellular capacity.

Pregler said drones would be safe to deploy in all those settings. The "Flying Cells on Wings," or COWs, which would respond to natural disasters, could be deployed in a year or so, he said, but it might take several years before drones are used at sporting events while testing is done to perfect the procedure.

"Dealing with wireless capacity at a sporting event or venue is more challenging, and that's because of the amount of traffic that would hit the drone," he said. "We might have multiple COWs and other solutions."

AT&T is committed to cordoning off drones at events where crowds would be present so that they aren't hovering directly over people, he said. The devices would probably operate on guy wires for greater control and would only go up and down "and at no point would be overlying people," he said. Part 107 authorizes the use that AT&T intends, he said.

Pregler is also a member of an aviation rulemaking committee that is proposing further FAA rules for several categories of drone flights over people. If the FAA accepts those recommendations, AT&T would still "probably not" deploy drones over people, he said.

So far, AT&T has received a "very positive reaction from the public" to its ideas for using drones to boost stadium cellular capacity. "Anything we can do to improve venue capacity would be greatly welcomed," Pregler said.

So far, AT&T has used rotary drones that work like mini-helicopters to conduct tower inspections. In the future, AT&T might rely on fixed-wing drones to trace the routes of buried fiber-optic cables that could have been damaged in a storm, where trees or poles might have disrupted or broken the cable, Pregler said. "They could fly long distances for inspections," he said.

AT&T's current drone inspections of cell towers are still technically in a pilot stage, which is due to go live in September. "We're very comfortable with what the drone technology can provide," he said.

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