As we enter the next era of Telecom, legacy data takes on new…

The great reset:
Solving legacy tower data in the age of digital

Written by

Josh Meler

Chief Marketing Officer

As we enter the next era of Telecom, legacy data takes on new significance. And as tower companies begin to deploy drones to digitize their portfolios, the 3d digital model will take on greater importance as it becomes foundational for all other analysis and automation.

As tower companies expand their industry footprint and position themselves for the next era of Telecom, they face new challenges. In addition to coping with aging infrastructure, redundant site visits and changing tenant requirements, modern telecom players must also navigate increasing equipment size and weight, acute labor shortages and engineering backlogs. To overcome these challenges and position themselves for the digital era, companies must start understanding the active state of their infrastructure and begin using AI to automate reporting and analysis.

This brings us to the problem. Legacy data is a huge challenge in the Telecom industry today. Tower company data is notoriously outdated, incorrect or missing. Traditionally, companies circumvent a lack of data by relying on repetitive site visits, outsourced services and educated guesswork. However, in the next era of Telecom, this model is no longer sustainable. Towercos will need to adopt new forward-looking approaches that both update and digitize their legacy information.

It’s time for a great data reset.

Legacy Data is a Big Problem

Understanding sites is key to tower longevity and profitability. Over their lifecycle, tower structures naturally age. The ground settles, steel rusts, bolts loosen, beams twist and animals habitate towers. Additionally, sites are purchased and sold, equipment is upgraded, towers are reinforced, carriers change, and service providers switch. Furthermore, sites are frequently visited by internal and external personnel of differing skillsets, each collecting data within a narrow scope and saving information within their respective data repositories.

All this compounds to create one big problem – poor legacy data.

Tower companies today have site data that is incomplete, inaccurate or missing altogether. As data trades hands and is manually shared between systems and processes, data can be lost. As updates or modifications are made, data can become outdated. And as various teams visit sites and record measurements by hand, data can become inaccurate. This means tower companies are increasingly uncertain about the active state of any given site, creating problems for Finance to accurately capture billable revenue, Sales to effectively communicate available inventory, Engineering to accurately calculate structural capacity, M&A to validate and onboard new sites, and Field Operations to perform safe and efficient inspections.

And with recent trends including equipment recalls, larger and heavier equipment upgrades, aggressive 5g rollout schedules, a rise in M&A activity and labor shortages – the problem of legacy data will only be amplified in the future.

Drones Promise to Reset Tower Data

Like so many other industries, Telecom is prime for reinvention in the digital era. To reset poor legacy data and adapt to upcoming trends, tower companies must conduct full audits of their sites, and digitize infrastructure and operations. To meet this need, tower companies have begun testing the potential of drones to augment and replace existing data and processes.

Drones have the unique ability to rapidly collect 3d data about the physical world. Through the process of photogrammetry, drones capture thousands of tower photos to generate a 3d digital model. The model can then be analyzed by artificial intelligence engines to extract features and analytics.

A 3d model provides the foundation on which measurements and analysis are performed.

Consequently, drone data is only as useful as the 3d model it can generate. AI analysis performed on a poor 3d model will generate low confidence analysis and information gaps that will still require on-site verification. Conversely, AI analysis performed on a highly accurate 3d model will detect object edges and equipment features to generate significantly more tower information, such as tower capacity and as-built diagrams. As tower companies begin to roll out drones to collect site information, it’s important that data accuracy and coverage are primary considerations.

Not All Drone Data Fixes Legacy Data

Tower structures are complex, with thin lattice structures, winding cabling and a multiplicity of equipment types and models. Capturing sufficient detail on these structures is difficult, and has limited the scaling of drone programs who struggle to collect a level of detail that would serve to replace a future truck-roll. Drone data cannot reset tower legacy data until 3d models achieve millimeter accuracy. Attributes including steel width, pipe thickness, bolt sizes and the degree of twist and sway are all essential measurements that tower technicians must collect when on-site. To augment and replace measurements taken in the field, the 3d digital model generated from drones must achieve no less than this level of detail.

Drone data (and what is possible through the photogrammetric process) is largely dictated by the drone sensor itself. For example, a 20MP sensor designed to capture “survey-grade accuracy” cannot generate the same resolution, GSD or point cloud density as a properly calibrated 60MP sensor. The sensor in turn is the primary constraint for 3d model accuracy.

Example Antenna Equipment Features Recognition Comparison 

Tower companies have historically turned to off-the-shelf consumer drones for their cost and convenience. And while the sensors on these aircrafts are capable of capturing stunning personal video and imagery, they are not engineered for tower structures. Off-the-shelf sensors are capable of only consistently generating centimeter-accurate 3d models, and often struggle to capture full tower surface area. This fidelity cannot be used to validate or correct legacy information. One train of thought is to interpolate between lower quality drone photos and existing legacy data. While this technique could work in theory, as mentioned above, because existing data isn’t reliable or complete, this approach fails in practice. Additionally, this process is inherently manual and doesn’t lend itself to future automation.

In order to update poor legacy data, Engineering Class 3d model fidelity is required. Engineering Class drone data enables millimeter accurate measurements across 99% of a tower’s surface coverage. Not only is this fidelity required to facilitate remote inspections and virtual measurements, but this level of detail is also foundational for AI-based analysis and report automation.

To achieve a prerequisite millimeter accuracy on towers, Visual Intelligence developed patented 120MP stereoscopic sensor technology capable of generating up to 100x the pixel density of an off-the-shelf drone and 20x the accuracy of a mobile LiDAR system (learn more). Using the Visual Intelligence sensor, a single drone collection creates an Engineering Class 3d model that can be used for repeated analysis throughout all stages of a tower’s lifecycle – including automated equipment inventory recognition, structural capacity analysis, mount and tower map reporting, modification simulations and more. The digital tower model is accessible by teams in different locations, where personnel can collaborate in real-time within AR/VR/MR immersive experiences as if they are on site. Tower as-built data can also be refreshed after major structural modifications with subsequent recaptures.

Tapping New (and Better) Data

As we enter the next era of Telecom, legacy data takes on new significance. And as tower companies begin to digitize their portfolios, the 3d digital model will take on greater importance as it becomes foundational for all other analysis and automation. Tower companies must now actively position themselves for 5G and 6G rollouts, strategic acquisitions and new market pressures. Meanwhile, drone sensors are maturing and Digital Twins are beginning to automate previously unexplored tower insights.

In this digital age, time is right for a great data reset.

Lift artificial limits on drone data accuracy.

Download our towers guide “Why Millimeters Matter”