Telus trains drone pilots to conduct cell tower maintenance

It was a cold, crisp Alberta winter day and Jason DeHetre, national manager of planning and engineering at Telus Corp., looked from the frozen iPad in his hands to the drone hovering hundreds of feet above and realized he didn’t have control of it.

The DJI Inspire drone, supplied by Gap Wireless, was well-suited to operate at the sub-zero temperatures, but the iPad used to control it wasn’t. Thanks to his training and experience, DeHetre was somehow able to bring the drone straight down for a soft landing without crashing. The lesson? Drones aren’t toys.

“When any quad-copter has a failure in the motor, it’s coming straight down and there’s no smooth landing,” he says. “Know your equipment, know where it’s going to fail, and how it’s going to fail.”

Telus is the only carrier in Canada right now to use drones as part of its regular cell tower maintenance plan, and so far it’s only doing so in Alberta. It started developing the idea of using drone-assisted inspections with distributor Gap Wireless in 2014, which supplies many other products to the carrier. In a presentation at the recent Canadian Wireless Trade Show in Toronto, DeHetre made it clear that working with drones in the field isn’t as easy as buying a device off the shelf at Best Buy and throwing it into the air. It’s a journey of training, compliance, and careful oversight.

Telus’ interest in drones matched that of Glenn Poulos, vice-president and general manager of Gap Wireless. Telus is Gap’s biggest customer he says, and its interest is just one of the reasons that he sees drones – or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – as a growth area for his business.

“They are definitely at the forefront in Canada,” he says of Telus. “The biggest challenge is the regulatory and training requirements. Telus has an in-house set of pilots that gives them a leg up.”

Drones a growing commercial business

Globally, the UAV market is expected to grow at a rate of 10 per cent annually through to 2020, predicts Dublin-based analyst firm Research and Markets. North America is the largest geography for the market, and drones that fly at medium altitude for long periods are the most popular category. Military use remains the most likely sector to be investing in UAVs, but commercial uses are on the rise.

Just three years ago DeHetre says he would have laughed at you if you’d suggested he’d be playing with remote control helicopters at work. That was before his boss told him to look into it for cell tower inspections. In deploying the drones as part of regular operations, he went about it seriously.

“We wanted to make sure we protected the brand,” he said. “It can’t just be cool, you have to be able to monetize the investment.”

Telus attained Special Flight Operations Certificates (SFOC) from Transport Canada for the regions where it intended to operate drones. Then it went about training its own cell tower maintenance crews in week-long programs. Crews that conduct maintenance checks with drones do so in two-person teams – one to fly the drone, and one to provide support on the ground. That involves ensuring the site is under control, and no one is walking around underneath the drone and no vehicles are coming up the driveway.

Other companies considering drone deployments shouldn’t hesitate to ask for help, DeHetre says. Telus chose to do in-house training for its own staff because those technicians already travel to the sites, and there may be times where there are proprietary concerns.

“Reach out to the pros,” he says. “There are so many people out there that have been involved in large UAV deployments.”

Service providers are the majority of Gap Wireless’ customer base for drone products, Poulos says. He’s built out the distributor’s UAV offerings to cover the complete ecosystem of what those clients require: aircraft, sensors and camera peripherals, image processing, support and training, and even anti-drone defense measures.

“Most of our customers are offering ‘drone as a service,’” he says. “They’re inspecting cell towers, wind turbines, bridges, you name it.”

When it came time to select what drone Telus would use in the field, DeHetre looked to the lineup offered by DJI. While he did try the consumer Phantom model at first, he found it was too light weight. The industrial-grade Inspire line proved better suited to windy Alberta.

“We are in some pretty harsh environments,” he says. At the same time, “we wanted something very simple for a pilot, something that was ready to fly.”

While Telus wouldn’t go far as cutting third-party inspections – those can still uncover more problems than UAV inspections – the UAV fleet has proven valuable in the carrier’s maintenance strategy. Images from the zoom cameras mounted to the Inspire have spotted ice damage on microwave antennae.

“Eventually that will be a failure point and we’ll have a client outage,” he says. “If we know ahead of time, we can schedule a maintenance window.”

And so long as it doesn’t get too cold out, those drones will continue to come back down for a smooth landing.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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