By Derek Prall

LAS VEGAS—Unmanned aerial systems (UAS)—commonly known as drones—are among the most exciting innovations in the wireless communications industry. In fact, that drones promise to improve efficiencies in the industry, as well as protect workers and ultimately save lives, according to Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors (NATE).

 “From NATE’s perspective, our mission is safety and quality; the safety of the men and women who, on a daily basis, work hundreds of feet in the air,” Schlekeway said yesterday during a session at IWCE 2017. “If you can prevent a worker from having to go up and down a tower two or three times a day, there are inherent safety benefits to that.”

To help industry leaders better understand the benefits of drones and the best practices for their use, NATE recently unveiled the second edition of its UAS Operations around Vertical Communications Infrastructure Guide. The guide’s objective is to improve UAS operation by suggesting considerations beyond the established Federal Aviation Administration guidelines. The guide focuses on the safety of tower technicians, ground personnel and the general public with respect to flight operations of UAS in the National Airspace System (NAS) as they relate to vertical communications infrastructure.

The guide comes on the heels of the release FAA’s Rule 107. Regulating the use of small, non-hobbiest unmanned aircraft, from a commercial utilization perspective in across a number of industries, Rule 107 is a game changer, Schlekeway says. Instead of having to petition the FCC for an exemption to use drones, the process has been streamlined for commercial use, opening up the possibilities of new, innovative use cases, he said.
Although there are still restrictions associated with Rule 107—in particular, restrictions associated with operation beyond line of sight—the use of drones for tower inspection is an exciting opportunity, according to Schlekeway.

Another interesting use case for drones is to greatly improve the efficiencies of bid-walks. Often times a carrier will need a network developed, so contractors will come out to physically walk the site to understand the challenges associated with the deployment. Traditionally, this would involve dedicating myriad resources and require large amounts of time. Now, with the use of drones, carriers can provide comprehensive footage of the site without having to physically displace anyone.

“There are a ton of efficiency benefits associated with this,” Schlekeway said, noting that teams no longer will be slowed by this responsibility.
A third use case with potential safety benefits is auditing the state of towers for potential hazards before work even begins, particularly as it applies to a tower’s safety climb system, Schlekeway said. Before a worker even suits up for work that day, he or she can already know what the potential hazards are at the site, what should be avoided and what might need to be fixed.