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Drones Take On Cell Tower Maintenance

The uses for drone technology are many, with more being realized all the time. Service providers of various types leverage drones in innovative ways, from pipeline monitoring to physical security. With Fluke Networks' Wireless Work Advisor Drone edition, we now have test equipment that takes advantage of the unique capabilities afforded by drones.

Back in July, I wrote about Fluke Networks' response to drones as a WiFi security threat. The company recently turned its attention to the challenges mobile carriers face and how drone technology can help.

In 2013, the mobile industry had 13 cell tower-related fatalities. With ever more demand for mobile data, tower counts and the number of devices on those towers are skyrocketing with no end in sight. There are some tasks that only technicians can do at tower sites, but many aspects of keeping mobile network infrastructure healthy don't necessarily need to put lives at risk.

With its Wireless Work Advisor Drone edition, Fluke Networks is focusing on employee safety and tower site workflow efficiency. The technology is pretty slick, and the results provided show that drones could be helpful for reducing the amount of dangerous work technicians are required to do, and in keeping our 3G/4G networks in good shape.

To be clear, Fluke Networks has not built a drone. What it has done is adapted its Wireless Work Advisor and AirMagnet Spectrum ES platforms for a new, drone-friendly suite that puts both tools into a small Windows tablet, which rides as payload on a decent-quality drone.

Benefits include the ability to inspect tower conditions and gather device inventory with high-resolution video and photos. The suite also handles spectrum analysis, signals cataloguing, and a wide range of cell-site maintenance and troubleshooting chores that don't need to be done by a human being hanging on by a safety belt hundreds of feet in the air.

A drone can do just as good a job hovering in front of a given antenna and monitoring signal strength at discrete distances as people can, but with far less risk to human safety. With an estimated 300,000 or more towers in the US, the potential for keeping more people on the ground for more tasks has strong appeal.

To see the drone version of Wireless Work Advisor in action, watch the video:

Beyond improving safety, the tool aims to streamline workflows and automate communications between the carriers' central data centers and the actual cell sites when maintenance is required. A lot of subscriber data, RF signal behavior information, and network-related information is typically exchanged between an on-site technician and a distant central office. The process is not always efficient, and Fluke Networks wants to address that.

I asked Fluke Networks whether the tool requires a specific drone model and how the whole package comes together. At this early stage of the product's release, the company said it plans to work with potential customers to select the right drone and tablet, while the software components can be ordered from Fluke Networks channel partners.