April 21 2021

Skydio 3D Scan Sneak Peek #5: Cell Tower

Sydni Topper

As the march toward 3D Scan general availability continues, incredible scans continue to roll in from our beta testers and EAP customers. Today we are showcasing another amazing 3D Scan of a cell tower. Skydio Solutions Engineer Colin Romberger scanned this 200-foot tall structure during a live customer demo in only 56 minutes using Skydio 3D Scan (click here to view the model in our Skydio Sketchfab). In case you missed it, this software is coming soon, and we have been offering sneak peeks of our favorite scans, including the Sepulveda Dam, a mock helicopter crash site, an abandoned Corsair Jet, and a crane mast. Soon, pilots will be able to use 3D Scan to automate data capture of any scene with comprehensive coverage and ultra-high resolution to perform higher quality inspections in less time and with minimal training.



Cell tower inspections are conducted for a variety of reasons. These structures can be up to 450 feet tall and hold large amounts of expensive carrier equipment. While the structural integrity of the tower needs to be inspected every three to five years, depending on the tower type, these towers actually get inspected and photographed much more often than that. As carriers roll out 5G across the country, they need to analyze and inspect cell towers in areas of interest to determine upgrade compatibility and create a plan to maximize coverage. Then, throughout the duration of an install process between a tower company and a carrier, the tower company must inspect the towers to determine how much equipment can be installed and where it will go on the tower. After the installation is complete, both carriers and tower companies hire more subcontractors or send employees to conduct a “Closeout” inspection to ensure that the equipment has been installed correctly and in the right place on that tower.


“The reason these towers get inspected so often is because tower companies and carriers need to confirm available space, current equipment configuration and correct installation, so there is lots of duplicative inspection work throughout the install cycle.”

Alden Jones

Skydio VP of Customer Success

The cell tower in Tampa Bay, FL. This is an image taken from the drone (not to be confused with the 3D Model screenshots below).


Without a drone, inspecting this cell tower would be a time-consuming, expensive, inaccurate and sometimes dangerous activity. To perform a TIA-compliant inspection of the tower’s structural integrity, the inspection crew would have to execute a treacherous tower climb, clipping into harnesses to haul materials and tools hundreds of feet in the air while avoiding wires and trying not to damage any expensive equipment. The risks to the climbers are numerous: falling objects, electrical hazards, and equipment failures. These types of manual inspections can take over six hours and may require a team of at least two people per tower climb, which can cost over $900 per inspection. These inspectors often document potential defects by taking close up pictures and labeling the steel in the photo to provide engineers positional context.



Another pre-drone method of equipment inspection involves inspectors driving out to the tower and using a telephoto lens to take close-up photos of the tower equipment from the ground. Tower companies and carriers then use these photos to estimate the size, count and position of equipment and then make determinations about the feasible size and location requirements for future installations. However, this method has a margin of error averaging four feet, leading to inaccurate models that could eventually spiral into expensive install errors or inaccurate coverage down the line.


“In order to perform certain types of equipment verification, for example to verify that the angles of antennas are correct or that smaller components are in the right location, they’d have to send someone up the tower which is high-risk and expensive.”

Colin Romberger

Skydio Solutions Engineer

Though manual drones appear to improve precision and worker safety, a pilot inspecting a structure like this cell tower with a manual drone would also run into a number of issues. Since the structure is made of metal and, by nature, emits significant amounts of electromagnetic interference, a manual drone would have to rely on long standoff distances and expensive zoom lenses to capture the necessary footage of the tower. The signals emitted by these towers can interfere with GPS positioning, disorient the drone’s navigational systems, and cause compass errors, which all significantly increase the likelihood of an expensive manual drone crash. Not to mention, there are typically many obstacles around the tower, like trees, buildings, wires, and poles that can also make 3rd party GPS flight automation tools incredibly difficult to use. The high training and pilot skill requirements needed to fly a manual drone create barriers to entry for internalizing and scaling successful drone operations.


“By nature, because of the materials on a cell tower, a manual drone runs into all sorts of issues with interference, from radio communications to GPS positioning, to compass errors. The fact that the Skydio 2 and X2 don’t rely on GPS or compass modules means you can be a lot more successful and comfortable flying the drone around these types of assets.”

Colin Romberger

Skydio Solutions Engineer

The metal structure of a cell tower is difficult for a manual drone to navigate near, requiring long standoff distances and expensive hardware to compensate for conservative flight patterns. The left picture is a photo from the drone, and the right picture is a screenshot from the 3D model of the same view of the tower.


Enter Skydio 3D Scan. This incredible software will revolutionize the way infrastructure assets like communication towers are digitized in order to be inspected and analyzed. Skydio’s Adaptive Mapping algorithms help the drone design a unique flight path specific to the structure. The Skydio vehicle autonomously explores and models the structure as it flies, and then automatically executes an image capture plan that provides efficient and complete coverage. As a result, the drone can capture imagery up close, from multiple angles, of every point in the pilot-specified scan volume, even those not visible from above. As an example, this is highly valuable for inspectors looking for proper installation and weatherproofing of wires at the bottom of antennas. In addition, 3D Scan leverages Skydio’s 360-degree Autonomy Engine so the operator does not need as much training or incur as much risk around sites with nearby obstacles.



This is a screenshot from the 3D model showing an upward-facing view of the top of the cell tower. Because of the likely interference issues and the capture angle, this shot would be nearly impossible to capture with a manual drone.

“The Skydio was flying underneath the arrays, going behind antenna panels, and flying into the lattice at different points during the flight when necessary to capture the required imagery. The drone’s awareness and how it executes the flight impressed everyone watching beyond words.”

Colin Romberger

Skydio Solutions Engineer


3D Scan unlocks revolutionary possibilities for streamlined data analysis of virtual asset bases, or digital twins. For the telecom industry, this will mean significantly more accurate tower models, which would create less back and forth in the design phase of the install cycle, more accurate coverage maps, and faster time to install. We believe that readily available digital twins generated by 3D scan could dramatically reduce the cycle time of new installations or modifications benefitting all parties: tower companies help their customers deploy faster, and carriers enjoy the benefit of rapid response to their customers' 5G expectations. Carriers and tower owners digitizing the telecom infrastructure portfolio would lead to an overall huge efficiency gain across the industry. Precise 3D models reduce human error, count and measurement interpretation, and can give tower companies, turf vendors, carriers, and engineering firms confidence in their data and to make rapid and automated decisions.


We believe longer term, 3D Scan also has the potential to elongate the time required between TIA inspections. Currently, inspections need to be performed every three to five years depending on the tower type. If companies maintained digital twins of towers, they would have accurate, regularly updated models of these towers, reducing the necessity of a physical visit. If the required time between inspections increased by even 25%, tower companies across the U.S. could save up to 20% per year in total inspection costs. 3D Scan is the perfect tool to make that process faster, cheaper, and more efficient.

“3D Scan can transform the speed and accuracy of the overall telecom industry. A net huge reduction in speed of colocation means the carriers can get their equipment up and running faster and tower owners can react to their customer needs more quickly, while further maximizing their existing vertical space.”

Alden Jones

Skydio VP of Customer Success

This model features 822 photos stitched together in Bentley ContextCapture. As you will notice if you follow the link to our Sketchfab account, the model contains incredible detail of all sides and angles of the tower, which would be impossible to document with a manual drone’s simplistic top-down flight.

This screenshot from the 3D Model shows the benefits of being able to fly up close - capturing incredible detail at angles inaccessible to any camera flying at the long standoff distances required by manual drones.



Additional capture details are below. To learn how you can apply this incredible new technology to your inspection operations, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Capture

  • Platform: Skydio 2
  • Date: Feb 22, 2021
  • Distance: 12 feet
  • Ground Sampling Distance (GSD): 1.5 mm
  • Overlap / Sidelap: 80 / 80%
  • Photos: 822
  • Flight Time: 56 minutes (approx. 3 batteries)
  • Structure Dimensions: 25 ft (length) by 50 ft (height) by 25 ft (width)

Processing

  • Package: Bentley ContextCapture
  • Computer: Asus Tuf Gaming A15 Laptop

Pilot Spotlight: Colin Romberger

Colin Romberger is a Solutions Engineer at Skydio. Prior to joining the Solutions Engineering team at Skydio, Colin served as Chief Pilot and Senior sUAS Operations Consultant for DARTdrones Inc. since 2016 where he was responsible for the development and delivery of sUAS training and consultative services for the company’s enterprise clients across a variety of industries including energy, utilities, engineering, communications, security, and public works. Colin began his professional career with unmanned aircraft in 2015 under the terms of a Section 333 Exemption from the FAA for approved operations in south central Pennsylvania where his company, Precision Aerial UAS, LLC, provided a range of aerial imaging services to clients in the construction and engineering industries. In 2016, Colin completed his master’s degree in Unmanned Systems from Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, where his studies focused on both commercial sUAS operations, as well as UAS Systems Design.