The importance of millimeter accurate drone data on towers

An interview with Ted Miller, former Chairman & CEO of Crown Castle International and Founder and Chairman of Visual Intelligence

Visual intelligence pipe thickness

Read this article to learn:

  • Challenges the tower industry has been facing for the past 25 years that are now being exacerbated
  • How Visual Intelligence's ability to capture engineering grade measurements will revolutionise ways of working
  • What limitations of other drone technologies has Visual Intelligence overcome?
  • The nature of Visual Intelligence's partnership with Bentley and what OpenTower iQ has to offer
  • The impact that digital twins can have throughout the entire towerco org chart and supply chain

Recognised as one of the founding fathers of the global tower industry, Ted Miller has now turned his attention to drones and the digitalisation of the sector to address some of the big issues that towercos still face 25 years on from his founding of Crown Castle. As manufacturers of the first drone sensor technology to provide millimeter accuracy, and with a unique partnership in place with Bentley, Visual Intelligence is set to revolutionise the way that towercos operate and do business.

TowerXchange: Why create a drone company and is there something missing in the industry today?

Ted Miller, Founder and Chairman of Visual Intelligence: Not much has changed since I founded Crown Castle in 1994 with respect to how tower infrastructure is managed. At the same time, there is now a network of millions of towers worldwide, tower equipment has gained in weight and size as we’ve moved from 2G to 5G, and new technological advancements are coming quickly with the advent of autonomy and edge compute.

Twenty-five years later, the industry is still using many of the same manual and redundant processes to inspect towers, and we still suffer from data that was either not accurate to begin with or has become corrupted over time due to M&A activity, changes in engineering firms, or staff turnover. We’re using the same towers as we were 25-30 years ago too, many of which were never designed to support the 4G and 5G loads that have been placed on them and who have seen design modifications that have been engineered on using inaccurate legacy data. These issues are then exacerbated across the enterprise because information isn’t shared seamlessly across one trusted source. Therefore, leasing revenue and equipment installations are unduly delayed because of antiquated processes and lack of information. All this leads to enterprise-wide inefficiencies and increasing OPEX and CAPEX expenditures.

This industry, like so many other industries, is prime for digitisation.

However, the tower industry doesn’t need another drone solution for inspection that provides pictures, video and 3D models that have no long-term value and that cannot be used for engineering analysis. While field operations are overdue for an update – so too is engineering, finance, legal, maintenance, insurance, leasing – you name it. Drone inspections are without a doubt better and safer than manual, but these solutions don’t save a truck roll. Any time a tower modification must take place, tower loading and capacity must be understood. And to perform a structural analysis, you must first have a millimeter-accurate dimensional map of the tower structure and mounts. The problem is that the “survey-grade” sensors on off-the-shelf drones today were never designed to capture better than centimeter-accuracy. So, while drone data is useful for gaining quick visibility of sites, it doesn’t yet eliminate the need for a team to mobilise or a climber to ascend a tower to collect engineering-grade measurements. In the case of the tower industry, the minimum level of detail that must be achieved before digital twins can provide engineering, enterprise-wide value is millimeter accuracy.

This is missing in the drone industry and the problem we solve with Visual Intelligence using proprietary scientific drone technologies (and not hobbyist toys).

TowerXchange: What is the problem with drone data today? Why does millimeter-accuracy matter and how do you achieve this?

Ted Miller, Founder and Chairman of Visual Intelligence: It’s simple really. Better drone data fidelity and greater tower coverage enables smarter artificial intelligence, engineering measurability and increased automation ability.

The problem is, tower analytics are limited by the data fidelity that drone sensors can produce, and the single camera sensors on drones today are not designed to capture better than centimeter-accuracy. This lack of fidelity inhibits artificial intelligence from performing a higher degree of automation and more sophisticated tower capacity and structural analysis. While inspection-grade data is useful for some types of field inspections, it does not remove the need for a climber to collect engineering-grade measurements or for an engineer to manually generate drawings.

However, when the drone sensor can achieve millimeter accuracy, the potential of digital twins to augment and replace manual tasks grows exponentially. Engineering-grade tower models increase operational capacity at the engineering level, and unlock insights upstream and across new business units. This enables tower companies to understand leasable inventory, continuously assess real-time tower capacity, and collaborate across one source of tower truth.

Achieving millimeter drone data accuracy on towers requires a different kind of sensor system than currently available. We’ve spent years developing the world’s first drone sensor payload capable of consistently digitizing tower structures with both millimeter accuracy and a 100% coverage footprint. Using patented dual-sensor technology, we generate billions of datapoint on each tower to map more measurable surface area than any alternative aerial or ground-based approach. With multi-angle perspectives and submillimeter resolution that doesn’t vary more than a millimeter during orbital collection, we provide access to all angles of towers, platforms and appurtenances on a highly repeatable basis with unparalleled reliability. Our sensor solution tailors the field of view based on the tower profile, and not only provides more pixels on target, but it also operates at a much safer standoff distance.

Visual Intelligence drone

TowerXchange: Why is it DJI Mavics or Phantoms cannot capture that same data?

Ted Miller, Founder and Chairman of Visual Intelligence: The popularity and utility of DJI Mavics and Phantoms make them great tools for photography, videos and mapping. However, these drones were never designed to capture anything better than inspection-class data. It doesn’t matter if you fly them one at a time or in multi-drone hives, the limitation is inherent to the sensor itself.

Off-the-shelf single-sensor drones have a much lower resolution camera and single wide-field optics, meaning they cannot produce the definition required to produce millimeter precision of the component parts of the structure, mounting frames or tower mounted equipment.

Even when trying to fly closer to the tower, these drones potentially have 50 to 100 times less pixel data available to process than gathered by the Visual Intelligence sensors. And, as these drones fly closer and closer to the tower, risk increases, pilot skill becomes more important, and interference from RF emissions and orbital drift become major factors.

When you look at Mavics and Phantoms through the lens of consistency, reliability or repeatability, these drones don’t come close to providing millimeter accuracy.

TowerXchange: What is OpenTower iQ and can you explain the nature of your Bentley partnership?

Ted Miller, Founder and Chairman of Visual Intelligence: Building a new kind of sensor that can capture millimeter data was only half the equation. After all, what good are engineering-accurate 3D models if today’s software is designed around the low fidelity data that off-the-shelf drones produce? We needed software that could interpret engineering-grade data and translate it into previously unseen insights and new forms of automation. This is why we partnered with Bentley to develop and exclusively offer OpenTower® iQ.

In building OpenTower iQ, we fused Bentley’s expertise in AI and automation with our precision tower digital models to offer the only solution capable of producing engineering analysis and reports.

OpenTower iQ is a telecom tower solution purpose-built to help owners and operators generate tower digital twins that simply their workflows and increase asset understanding. Using artificial intelligence, OpenTower iQ analyzes tower detail to automate inspection, reporting and engineering analysis. Increased tower model fidelity enables new capabilities including structural and mount analysis, as-designed versus as-built comparisons, vendor equipment recognition, and automated report generation. This results in better lifecycle decisions, improved engineering analysis, and reduced costs of ownership.
Bentley is a true partner in every sense of the word, and together we’re committed to exploring how this new class of tower data will expand OpenTower iQ features and unlock new and innovative capabilities.

TowerXchange: In what tangible ways does OpenTower iQ help tower stakeholders? Is this tool largely for engineers only?

Ted Miller, Founder and Chairman of Visual Intelligence: In OpenTower iQ, we’ve automated many new engineering analysis and reports. As I mentioned previously, increased digital model fidelity unlocks new capabilities including structural and mount analysis, loading analysis, as built versus as-designed comparisons, CAD drawings, report generation and much more. But OpenTower iQ is not only for engineering departments. Engineering analysis is just the foundation all other departments rely on for decisions in their workflows.

For example;

– Tower Owners reduce their overall CAPEX and OPEX costs by removing additional visits and administration, achieving better forecast revenue with known portfolio capacity and condition.

– Finance visibility increases revenue assurance by validating the make, model and owner of existing tower equipment, and identifying missed revenue potential.

– Leasing gains a real-time view of available tower capacity, both physically and structurally and can accelerate delivery for tenants, improving the time to revenue .

– Field Operations reduces redundant truck rolls and eliminates the need for tower climbs where millimeter-accurate dimensional reports are generated.

– Maintenance can identify minor changes and tower defects, and make sure the right crew is dispatched to the right site with the right tools and equipment.

– M&A can rapidly assess tower condition, equipment and capacity for enhanced purchasing decisions and onboarding procedures.

– Network Operators can quickly access accurate information about their existing equipment configurations and potential space for upgrades, not to mention troubleshooting issues.

Enterprise-wide value is the key here. By establishing a baseline of millimeter-class tower information, we provide information that is useful across the entire enterprise. This is the purpose of OpenTower iQ and the repository of information that live within its digital twins.

TowerXchange: Can you talk about scale and why drones aren’t commonplace at tower sites today?

Ted Miller, Founder and Chairman of Visual Intelligence: I don’t think tower companies have been ready to have a serious conversation about scale, because drone data has yet to achieve a fidelity that is meaningful across the organization. The cart is way out ahead of the horse here.

Why would you want to scale a drone solution that satisfies a small portion of data requirements and still requires a truck roll to collect more accurate measurements by hand? These solutions augment existing processes, but they do little to replace them. The costly part of drone collection is manpower and time. If you’re going to invest in mobilizing a workforce to capture tower data, why not collect a fidelity that’s reusable and serves new use cases that extend beyond just field inspections?

I think we were so excited by the prospect of drones replacing climbers, that we charged right past data fidelity questions and immediately started to talk about how to scale a solution. I know drone companies were eager to have that conversation. Hence, today’s solutions largely address field operations, but neglect many other crucial operations.

Look at it this way. Think about COVID-19 vaccines for a minute. We didn’t solve for distribution before we knew what a vaccine looked like. We couldn’t. Instead, we waited for a vaccine that yielded a high enough efficacy, and only then could we look at how to roll it out to our populations. Just think – the first widely accepted vaccine had to be transported below zero in specialized freezers, it had a short shelf-life of weeks, and it required two separate shots spaced 30 days apart. It met our requirements for effectiveness, so we had to then solve for the complex logistics of scale. It’s no different talking about scaling a drone program on towers. We need to first deliver value at a foundational level, in this case engineering, and only then can we have a meaningful conversation about scale.

We’ve addressed scale head on at Visual Intelligence, and we’ve proven our ability to capture and process high volumes of towers and data. To unlock repeatable datasets across tower portfolios, we’ve created an enterprise operations platform that automates nearly every facet in the tower insight supply chain. Our software makes it easy to manage pilots, check equipment, dispatch tower captures, execute autonomous drone missions, upload data and more – all from one central portal.

TowerXchange: Do you have anything else to add?

Ted Miller, Founder and Chairman of Visual Intelligence: The landscape has changed since I last managed a towerco, but the way business is done has not shifted to keep pace with it. Now more than ever, with a rise in M&A activity and on the verge of 5G rollouts and more, companies need to understand their current tower portfolio capacity, condition and cost of ownership. It’s time for the industry to embrace digital transformation. This means looking to digital twins as living data warehouses and leveraging advances in AI and automation to unlock new ways of performing traditionally labor-intensive tasks. This all starts with millimeter-accurate drone data.

As data fidelity and coverage increase, so too does its applications. With engineering-grade accuracy, we’re unlocking a new class of tower data that is poised to transform the industry.

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