There are hundreds of thousands of cell towers in the United States. Most towers need to be inspected at least every three to five years, but some more frequently. With over 80,000 towers needing to be examined annually, cell tower inspections are big business.
Traditionally, these inspections have been conducted manually by teams of inspection personnel. Skilled professionals must place themselves in dangerous environments, sometimes hundreds of feet in the air. The work is slow, expensive, and hazardous. There needs to be a better method of conducting utility inspections such as these, and there is.
In recent years, drones are becoming the preferred tool for cell tower inspections. If you are interested in working in this field, you have two paths: employee or contracted pilot. Employees are commercial drone pilots hired on a full-time or part-time basis by the utility company. Contracted pilots are freelancers.
If you choose to work for a company, they will already be sold on the benefits of UAV technology. As a freelancer, you will need to find work and, in some cases, convince your clients that the advantages of using drones for inspections are too good to pass up.
Let's discuss the most important benefits so you can have a good chance of convincing potential clients to hire you. Your top three selling points are lower cost, improved safety conditions, and better data quality.
Side note, these also work for other utility inspections, such as solar farms, wind turbines, and electrical infrastructure.
While hourly rates vary between companies and regions, manual inspection crews typically charge between $65-$85 per hour per person. This is in addition to extra expenses such as worker's comp, health insurance, social security, and unemployment that must be considered when comparing the overall cost. Manual inspections can range in duration from several hours to a full day.
Freelance drone pilots are, in most cases, hired as independent contractors. So, clients avoid paying these extra expenses. Drone-based inspections are also much faster. A typical tower can be completed in one to one and a half hours. That is a considerable cost saving and one your clients will be happy to entertain. Drones have been proven to reduce costs by up to 50%.
Improved Safety Conditions
Inspecting cell towers with people exposes workers to many dangers. Two of the most concerning are electrocution and falls. Falls are one of the most significant causes of worker-related deaths and injuries in the United States annually. Why place a person where a drone can go instead?
Drones can quickly and safely scale even the tallest of cell towers. Pilots can approach towers from just about any angle to avoid potential dangers. Advanced hardware like obstacle avoidance sensors and software like artificial intelligence makes UAVs incredibly safe and reliable. There are few good arguments for placing a human in harm's way when a drone can do the same work.
Better Data Quality
Finally, we come to data quality. If you have ever seen manual teams inspect a cell tower, you know it is a slow process. Also, in most cases, it is more of a sampling than an inch-by-inch inspection. Workers use cameras and handheld thermal imagers to review a tower. While this does give a good representation of the tower's condition, it is easy to miss potential problem spots.
The data collected by UAVs can literally cover every inch of the tower. This detailed data can also build 2D and 3D models and serve as a historical record of the structure. With the right equipment, you can even create digital twins. The quality of drone-based data is far superior to that of manual inspection teams.
Hopefully, I have given you a few points to help convince clients that drone-based cell tower inspections are the way to go. Happy and safe flying!
Article Written by David Daly