Autonomous drones inspect Rakuten Mobile’s new cell towers

In the year 1920, the aviation industry was at a pivotal point. Airplanes had taken off just a few years earlier, and the first world war had propelled the technology to new heights. By the turn of the decade, flying machines had begun to evolve from futuristic airborne wonders to revolutionary practical tools.

100 years later, the drone is undergoing a similar evolution. While drones themselves are not necessarily new, rapid advancements in drone tech have finally seen them adopted by private institutions for practical applications.

In April 2020, Rakuten Mobile announced it would be using drones to conduct inspections of its brand-new network of antennas nationwide, in partnership with airspace mapping company Rakuten AirMap, Inc.

Rakuten Mobile: Pioneering technology

Rakuten Mobile has been dominating headlines again since its full-scale mobile carrier launch in early April. Japan’s newest mobile network operator is using pioneering technology to build the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized mobile network. The cost and time reductions from this technology have allowed the company to offer a mobile plan that is less than half the price of competitors.

While software and automation are a principal focus, physical antennas are still required to make the connection between Rakuten Mobile’s network and its customers. Rakuten Mobile is building out its network of base stations, starting from Japan’s most populated areas.

Drones can easily reach towers that would normally require wingless humans much time, labor and peril.
Drones can easily reach towers that for human inspectors would commonly require more time and pose physical dangers.

But Rakuten Mobile isn’t letting the constraints of physical hardware get in the way of efficient operations. Drones—loaded with special software—are stepping in to conduct the completion inspections of thousands of new base stations going up around Japan, flying directly to the antennas and making a visual record of the devices from multiple angles.

By eliminating the need for inspectors to physically access the devices, the initiative promises to save an untold number of man-hours and perilous tower-climbing.

Rakuten AirMap has just the tool

The service—called TowerSight—is provided by California-based airspace intelligence outfit AirMap, with whom Rakuten formed the joint venture Rakuten AirMap, Inc. in 2017. In Japan, the venture provides UTM (unmanned traffic management) services and mapping tools for landowners and drone operators looking to safely and legally navigate Japan’s skies.

A virtual representation of the drone’s inspection route on the TowerSight system.
A virtual representation of the drone’s inspection route on the TowerSight system.

AirMap’s TowerSight system allows companies to leverage off-the-shelf drones to autonomously conduct tower inspections, automatically create 3D reconstructions and record a complete digital portfolio of all owned tower infrastructure. As mobile carriers across the globe build out brand new networks, the company expects strong demand for more efficient inspection workflows.

Two of Rakuten’s most innovative services, combined

Heading up Rakuten AirMap, Inc. is Hideaki Mukai. Mukai has racked up years of experience at the helm of Rakuten Drone, conducting dozens of trials of drone-related services all over Japan, including drone highways over powerlines, delivering supplies to remote islands, sending goods to disaster-struck Fukushima and even making a delivery to a private residence.

Mukai recently led an initiative to deliver groceries to a remote island via Rakuten Drone.
Mukai recently led an initiative to deliver groceries to a remote island via Rakuten Drone.

“Conducting the inspections with drones greatly improves the safety and the speed of the process,” Mukai says. “AirMap’s TowerSight system also provides a single platform where Rakuten Mobile can manage its base station site data with a single simple interface.”

The platform allows Rakuten Mobile staff to check on each base station remotely without needing to visit them physically. “This is especially beneficial right now, as we’re all working from home due to the coronavirus.”

The initiative was made possible in part thanks to the team’s extensive experience. “Rakuten has been utilizing drones for delivery since 2016 and inspection services since 2018,” Mukai explains.

“Our experience with drones in Japan and AirMap’s technologies made us a perfect fit to provide such solutions to Rakuten Mobile. Our knowledge of local aviation laws and our network of DSPs (drone service providers) through Rakuten AirMap contributed to the quick launch of the service.”

The age of the drone is upon us

Rakuten Drone has been ambitious with its trial services aimed at the general public, but industrial applications like those of Rakuten Mobile represent a giant leap towards widespread adoption.

“AirMap also provides a product for construction sites and buildings,” Mukai explains. “Utilizing our experience with building inspections using drones, we would like to expand our business to that realm as well.”

Just a speck: A Rakuten drone conducting a ‘drone highway’ test over power lines in rural Japan.
Just a speck: A Rakuten drone conducting a ‘drone highway’ test over power lines in rural Japan.

Inspecting high, free-standing structures like antennas and buildings seems a perfect use-case for drone technology. But Mukai hasn’t forgotten about the potential applications of drones in the realm of logistics. “We would also like to strive to realize drone delivery as early as possible as the global need for it is high due to the situation with the coronavirus.”

As serious industrial applications begin to take off, it’s clear that drones have become more than techy toys or futuristic folly. It took 100 years, but—just like the airplane—the drone may have reached that pivotal point.

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