What is the roadmap to widespread adoption of drones and digital twins?

Engineering experts, Delmec, discuss how the technologies can find a place alongside conventional methodologies

Read this article to learn:

  • Challenges to overcome to make the widespread use of drones viable
  • Work that Delmec has been doing to assess the technology and its additional uses as well as limitations
  • The importance of good data in leveraging the benefits of digital twins
  • Key considerations in ensuring that technologies being developed are fit for purpose

Delmec are recognised as one of the leading engineering experts in the tower industry, with long standing experience working with MNO and towerco partners to carry out structural assessments and upgrades of towers. TowerXchange was honoured to involve Delmec’s Head of Engineering and Innovation, Damien Kelly in our data working group focussed on the use of drones and digital twins by the industry. Here we speak to Damien in more detail to better understand the roles that the technologies may play going forward and some of the challenges which the industry needs to work together to address.

TowerXchange: We heard a lot during the session about the potential use cases for drones and digital twins in developed markets but less so for developing markets. Do you see the technologies playing the same role in developing markets? What are some of the different challenges/ dynamics specific to developing markets which will impact the way in which digital twins and drones are used?

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec: Technology in the developing markets will have a different affect. This technology may require a longer period of time to become a mainstream option due to the macroenvironment. As we’re reviewing the capabilities of the current technology, we are mindful of the markets we work in. The essence of using drones is to make life easier for our teams, capturing more data and overall reducing spend. There are a number of key aspects that we need to overcome to make this viable;

Logistical Difficulties: Our current model of site inspections requires our site teams travelling to site, climbing the structure to record the information. Depending on the level of detail required, the full process on site can vary from half a day to two days. There are certain difficulties we’ve had to overcome, tricky terrains, access issues, network issues and weather difficulties. The aspect of mobilisation in the developed markets can be vastly easier which alone removes a lot of the difficulties. Over the years we have streamlined our process, utilised technology in the forms of applications and overall tried to make our job easier. The next step for our business is drones, but this can dramatically change our model. Our drone offering will need to take these risks into account, whether it’s in the form of back up batteries, tools or certain skills that the team will need to revert to if obstacles arise.

Legislative Obstacles: Not only present in the developing markets, but there are drone laws in place in all markets. Some laws are more mature, which can both aid or hamper the process. Nonetheless, a lot of markets have varying levels of legislative obstacles. We have experienced laws that dictate drones cannot be flown directly over people, within distance of an airport or to a certain height which in itself can hamper certain towers.

Data Integration: One aspect that needs to be considered is data, especially network quality in the location. We need to manage the data from site and convert it to a usable format for our clients. This issue is compounded when we are completing a large number of sites across multiple countries, we need to set in stone robust systems to allow us to retrieve, analyse and compare the data over time.

Following from the logistical element, the resources operating the drones on site are a key aspect. Typically, our teams are equipped with surveying tools such as steel grade measuring devices, galvanization testers, calipers, Schmitt hammers, etc which are still required to capture the detail [In most cases]. In addition to the tooling, our resources need to be fully climber trained and trained to capture the structural detail required. Our approach will incorporate these skills with drone operating skills to allow the drone itself to become an addition to the engineers tool set. Sending resources to site without the necessary training and tooling can be a risk in terms of cost as any complications with the drone could result in a failed site visit. Our approach on this technology is to allow the drone to alleviate some of the tasks, reduce time on site and to allow the drone to capture more info, not as a direct replacement for the time being.

Cost is of course a major aspect to this and will dictate the speed to which the technology is adopted. Depending on the country, site type and scope, a typical structural survey can cost $1200 to $1500. Obviously, a reduced scope can cost less which will ultimately help justify the initial investment. A large part of the cost is made up of mobilisation and additional time required to travel to site, taking difficult terrains into account. However, the cost in the developed markets is comprised largely of labour which is inherently higher that it would be in the developing markets.

Mobilisation costs in the developing markets can be regarded as a major limitation as the teams are still required to travel to site, therefore the costs are still present. For us, we are reviewing the additional uses of the drone data to create a model that works for our clients as any additional costs need to be justified. These points are just a snippet of what we need to consider internally to allow us to offer a drone service.

TowerXchange: Delmec themselves have been doing work exploring the use of drones in their own operations, what has been your impression to date of the capabilities and limitations of drone technologies? Where technology evolutions are required?

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec:: We are in the process of speaking to companies offering varying levels of drone technology, some are achieving more than others. There is no doubt that the technology is still being developed, however there are major advancements made to achieve a digital twin. We have focused our roadmap around what is currently available with multiple proven case studies, and also what is being offered but still relatively recent. Our intention for the future is to ensure we are providing our clients with the latest technology and to ensure accurate information. In order for us to achieve this, we need to partner with a drone supplier that we can work with to develop the technology. We have an experienced team within Delmec with a vast amount of experience in structures. We plan to use this experience and work with a supplier to develop this offering.

Our plan consists of four phases, ending with a solution to provide a full, accurate representation of the structure to our client. There are a number of items in our current scope that fall outside of the capabilities, such as steel grade testing, capturing circular hollow section dimensions or of course, foundation mapping. Items we would incorporate into our typical site visits. We need to ensure that we consider the additional points of information that a drone can capture, instead of focusing on the limitations when compared to the current model. We are focusing our efforts into formulating a model that is viable in terms of time and cost, but also strongly consider the portals of data that the drone offers that are advantageous to other aspects of services.

TowerXchange: In your experience, to what extent do you see MNOs/towercos having adequate baseline data in place to create and then realise the full potential for digital twins? Can you talk through some of the thought processes in deciding the best methodologies to plug a gap in information?

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec: From what we’ve seen, our client’s level of data can vastly differ. For the clients we have worked with over a number of years, we worked with them to enforce the importance of having data. For the MNOs/towercos that focused on the importance of data, digital twins will be a lot easier to achieve of course. Our standard approach to working with clients who are aiming to improve their data is to figure out what is currently available. Once this is known, we formulate plans to “fill the gaps” but also to confirm the accuracy of the data available. Some of the detailed actions here include structural assessments to give clients a picture of their portfolio but it also includes physical site visits to ascertain the structural and equipment details.

TowerXchange: There appeared to be a lot of positivity around the potential for digital twins but still concerns around how this data can be handled and integrated into different systems, with standardisation being raised a number of times. What do Delmec see as being the most important requirements in developing digital twin platforms/ the vendor ecosystem to be fit for purpose?

Damien Kelly, Head of Engineering & Innovation, Delmec: Integration is key when incorporating a new technology or system into your business. One of the first questions we ask any potential software partner is around the possibility of an API that can be integrated into our current systems. The ability for a new system to be integrated into the current ecosystem is paramount to achieving a digital twin, this is immensely advantageous to keeping data up to date. Some of our key developments in Delmec includes our infrastructure management system [TiMS], our app and our ERP system. Our selected drone system will need to link with these to ensure we can easily access the data we want and can utilise it to its potential.

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