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Rakuten to deploy drone inspectors at cell sites

Reduced costs high on agenda, but drone tech might also mitigate COVID-19 risks for field engineers.

Ken Wieland

April 6, 2020

2 Min Read
Rakuten to deploy drone inspectors at cell sites

Rakuten Mobile, Japan's disruptive mobile network operator (MNO), said it will use drones – developed within Rakuten Group, an e-commerce and online retailing company – to inspect basestations nationwide.

Cell site inspections can be a dangerous task for engineers, apparently, especially when climbing up antenna towers to get a good look at the basestation. Rakuten Mobile thinks it's best for drones to get on with the job – not only for safety purposes, but to increase inspection accuracy and reduce costs as well.

Cost savings might be considerable. Rakuten Mobile, which will shortly launch 4G services and then 5G in the coming months based on open RAN tech, plans to have some 45,000 4G basestations and around 35,000 5G ones in place once the network is fully up and running.

There's a COVID-19 angle to this. [Ed. note: Now there's a surprise.] Although Rakuten Mobile doesn't reference the coronavirus outbreak – which seems a missed marketing opportunity, not least because Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is reportedly on the verge of declaring a state of emergency to stop COVID-19 spreading across the country – the idea of drones being used to replace field engineers, for health reasons, is starting to occupy minds elsewhere.

A spokesperson from one heavyweight operator, headquartered in Europe, told Light Reading there were concerns about sending engineers into the field due to COVID-19 risks.

Although MNO field engineers will welcome reduced risk of infection, they have other worries. Since COVID-19 is focusing minds on increased automation and remote monitoring through drones – already popular in oil and gas industries – the pandemic may well inadvertently hasten the pace of engineering job losses in the telco space.

Rakuten keeps it in-house
Rakuten Mobile is teaming up with Rakuten AirMap to develop drones for basestation inspection. Part of Rakuten Group, Rakuten AirMap claims to provide "safe and compliant" drone operations to enterprises and airspace authorities, as well as to drone operators in Japan.

The idea is for these specially developed drones to take multi-angle photographs of newly constructed basestations. By carrying out this work with drones, inspections should be conducted more quickly.

Completion inspections, said the two Rakuten companies, will be conducted using AirMap's TowerSight, a "unified system" aimed at allowing both tower companies and mobile network operators to "transform" their tower inspections through automated drone workflows.

Rakuten Mobile has so far only conducted limited trials of basestation completion inspections in certain areas. Plans are afoot, however, to take the drone tech nationwide.

— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Ken Wieland

contributing editor

Ken Wieland has been a telecoms journalist and editor for more than 15 years. That includes an eight-year stint as editor of Telecommunications magazine (international edition), three years as editor of Asian Communications, and nearly two years at Informa Telecoms & Media, specialising in mobile broadband. As a freelance telecoms writer Ken has written various industry reports for The Economist Group.

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