The Tower Industry and Drones: Todd Schlekeway, NATE

Ever wonder how drones are used in the cell tower industry?

Todd Schlekeway is the Executive Director of the National Association of Tower Erectors or NATE for short.  Nate a non-profit trade association providing a unified voice for tower erection, maintenance and service companies and is comprised of approximately 780 member companies.  With drones being used to inspect towers, you can bet that NATE members are keenly interested in where the drone industry is headed. Todd is here to talk about NATE, the tower industry and how drones are used to improve safety and efficiency across the board.

In This Episode

  • Introduction. Todd Schleckaway is the Executive Director of the National Association of tower Rectors (NATE). The organization has approximately eight hundred twenty five member companies that are involved in wireless infrastructure at some level.  The organization was founded in 1995, about the time when mobile cell towers started to be constructed.
  • Membership. NATE is comprised of a diverse membership base consisting of the contractor companies on the ground and employing the elevated tower techs who work on the structures, the companies that own the towers, the carriers that use the towers and technology members. Member companies own or control over 40,000 tower structures in the United States.
  • Drones and Towers. As Todd points out, the needs of the tower industry are tailor made for drones. NATE established a sub-committee comprised of various stakeholders from their membership develop best practices for the tower industry. Some of the priorities include coordinating with the FAA and with other commercial drone associations, monitoring regulatory policy and advocating for more flexibility in how commercial operators can use drones in the tower industry. Part 107 provided a lot of benefits to the industry (as with others). The industry also advocates for more flexibility and leeway when it comes to beyond visual line of sight and flying over people to conduct inspections. These priorities take on a greater importance when one considers the existing number of cell towers that require maintenance and inspections, together with an expected increase in tower construction to serve the growing appetite for streaming video and data networks.
  • Value of Drones in the Tower Industry. Todd talks about the value of using drones to perform inspections in the tower industry. Typical inspection workflow can result in crews climbing towers 7-8 times a day. In the context of the repetitive stress that’s associated with that kind of work (especially considering that many towers exceed 2,000 feet), a drone can really help maintain and preserve employee health and wellness. Many in the industry  have estimated conservatively that 33% of the climbs up and down communication towers can be eliminated due to the use of drone technology. That represents a significant lifesaving potential.
  • Special Considerations. Drone operators need to consider several factors when serving your tower industry, such as having a working knowledge of RF emission and exposure and how that might affect drone operation. Many of the higher towers have guide wires that, so drone operators need to know how to navigate the UAVs around these wires. Towers come in different shapes and sizes and operators must have a knowledge of the tower side environment to conduct missions safely and effectively.
  • Interdrone 2017. Todd will lead a panel at Interdrone 2017 on “Innovations in UAV Structural Inspections”. The panel will discuss how inspecting towers with a UAV is safer, faster and more cost effective then sending crews or using helicopters. The panel will also do a deep dive into innovation in using drones, and they’ll discuss how the technology will play a valuable role in making work more efficient and safer. Anyone who relies on technology and wireless to communicate, would be interested in attending this session.
  • Other Uses. Todd discusses some of ways that drones are used in the tower industry, beyond inspections. Such uses include monitoring nests of environmental species, visualizing lands in order to prepare bid packages, and identifying hotspots before they cause destruction.
  • Closing. Todd explains that NATE will continue to work hard at the legislative and regulatory level within the tower industry and to educate their workers on the requirements.

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