Drones vital to superfast broadband rollout

Drones vital to superfast broadband rollout

Drones are playing a vital role in the delivery of superfast broadband in some of England's most remote areas, as well as helping farmers fight rural crime.

Last updated: Feb 26, 2021

7 minute read

Drones are playing a vital role in the delivery of much-needed superfast broadband to some of England's most remote areas, as well as helping farmers fight back against rural crime.

Northumberland-based technology and communications company Alncom is harnessing the power of UAVs for its ground-breaking work in connecting isolated communities to the internet and providing farms with survelliance cameras.   

The Alnwick firm uses drones to carry out wireless broadband and CCTV surveys - an approach which is dramatically reducing the time of each job and yielding more reliable results and aiding decision making.

Our first ‘proper’ drone was a DJI Phantom 2 and it was a game-changer. We immediately saw the potential for using drone images for Wi-Fi and CCTV surveys.

Stephen Pinchen - Alncom Managing Director

Alncom also flies UAVs to capture great footage for promotional material, including this video below - which showcases the company's work to rollout broadband in Northumberland and illustrates just how effective drones can be for filmographers.

Alncom purchased its fleet of drones - including a mix of InspireSpark and Mavic aircraft - from North Shields-based UAV industry specialist Heliguy. Alncom has used heliguy™ for many years, praising its expertise and 'great customer service', adding 'we have no need to use anyone else for anything drone-related'.    

Helping communities get connected

The company, based at Alnwick's Cawledge Business Park, is working in a ‘unique way’ to help parts of Northumberland get connected to the internet.

Alncom aims to complement rather than compete with traditional telecoms providers, such as BT. The company maps BT’s planned cable broadband rollout and follow-ups to provide wireless internet to businesses and houses that BT cannot connect to.

It means that no one misses out, even where BT can’t deliver. With Alncom rural broadband, everyone within a home or small business is able to do what they want online without any annoying buffering.

Stephen Pinchen

Alncom uses several techniques to make this happen.

One method is to connect to a source from a fibre-enabled area and send this to the remote location, up to 45km away, using line-of-sight Wi-Fi links.

Another approach is to incorporate a mix of technologies, including TV white space (the unused broadcasting frequencies in the wireless spectrum) in the most remote locations and areas where line-of-sight links are not possible, giving connection up to 20km between the fibre-enabled source and the Wi-Fi receiver.

Using drones for Wi-Fi surveys

As part of this work to deliver superfast rural broadband, Alncom has found that drones are an invaluable tool for carrying out Wi-Fi surveys to determine the best approach to take.

Stephen said: "Originally, this job would have been carried out using 15-metre pump-up masts and we'd either use a camera or set up wireless links at two locations and actually do a physical test like this. But this requires a team at each end, masses of kit and can take half a day just to do one test."

UAVs have changed all of this!

Stephen said: "However, with a drone, we can fly to antenna height, take a high-resolution 360 photo, then analyse it on our phones. Generally, if we can physically ‘see’ our target, we’ll be able to reach it so we can then decide to go ahead or carry out further testing."

For example, the picture below is a still taken from a 360 image from a drone, showing a relay site with superfast broadband. It is 8.5km away, but the team was able to see it clearly, meaning that a microwave link could be created to deliver superfast broadband to the farm and farm cottages. 

"So that's five more properties in rural Northumberland that can now get superfast broadband," said Stephen.

The effectiveness of using a drone to capture a 360 image is further endorsed in this panorama (below) of a Wi-Fi site. Use your mouse to explore the view and experience what the Alncom team can see.  

Amazingly, the UAV was able to capture this 360 in just one minute - meaning Alncom can survey thousands of miles, covering thousands of properties, in one day - as opposed to a single link in half-a-day using pump-up masts.

Wi-Fi Surveys - Case Studies

Among those to have benefited from Alncom's broadband rollout are residents and businesses based at Linhope Estate and Fontburn Reservoir - both in Northumberland. And for each case, drones played a major part in figuring out a solution.

The stunning Linhope Estate is located seven miles up a single-track road deep in the Cheviot Hills.

Previously, there was no possibility of any broadband or fibre installation at Linhope Lodge – a guest house accommodating up to 18 people with a farming and sporting tourism business supporting the local economy – while attempts to install satellite broadband had been unsuccessful.

In came Alncom, which pinpointed a small area on a hillside where superfast broadband could be received to a small mast from Powburn six miles away.

After planning permission, the mast was installed, powered up and Alncom secured 84 megabits per second to the living room of Linhope Lodge, while various other farms and cottages were able to be linked up with superfast broadband.

The difference is clear to see.

This has revolutionised life, connecting the remote community to the benefits of the internet, enabling business to develop and people to communicate and feel part of the 21st century.

Lord James Percy, of Linhope Estate

And the task was aided by drones.

Stephen said: "The Linhope one was helped massively by drones. We surveyed and found a 10m² area on a hill that can see the Powburn source and also the properties in Linnhope, so we used this as a relay."

The picture below shows Powburn (circled) and the relay point marked with an X. Stephen said: "This is from a height of 10 metres from ground level on the hill. We were able to fly from a fence 400 metres away. Imagine the time and kit needed to see this without drones!"

Another example is at Northumbrian Water’s Fontburn Reservoir site, where Alncom overcame challenges such as vast distances, hills and trees to bring superfast broadband to the area, aiding Northumbrian Water and also 150 residential properties over nearly 100 square miles.

As part of its forward-thinking approach, Alncom used drone technology to quickly survey the landscape and plan solutions.

Stephen said: “With a number of other companies unable to provide a solution, this was a perfect opportunity for Alncom to demonstrate how cutting-edge technology can be used to bring superfast broadband to remote rural locations, cost-effectively. The benefits to the local community are massive and they’ve not had to pay a premium.”

Alncom is also working outside of Northumberland. For example, the company has teamed up with Durham County Council to deliver superfast broadband to houses around Hamsterley Forest.

Stephen said: "Drones are invaluable in finding routes through the trees and hilly terrain."

Using drones for CCTV surveys

Alncom is also using drones to carry out CCTV surveys, which in turn are helping farmers protect their goods against thieves.

The company was recently called out to a farm on the outskirts of Alnwick which has been the victim of rural crime on numerous occasions, including having high-value machinery pinched.

Alncom installed CCTV at the site - and used a drone to help.

Stephen said: "Where appropriate, we use drones for CCTV surveys. It allows us to give the client an almost identical ‘view’ from proposed camera locations. We can feed these images to the installation teams so they know exactly what the cameras need to cover."

Here is an example drone shot that was taken with the client while designing the installation.

And here's an image from the actual CCTV camera once the installation was complete. It's as good as identical!

Alncom has used drones in a number of Northumberland towns to conduct surveys for CCTV installation.

Stephen said: "This allowed us to find high points which will be used for communication links connecting the cameras."

Praise for Heliguy

Drones are clearly playing a vital role for Stephen and his team at Alncom. And he has praised heliguy™ for being an important part of Alncom's UAV journey.

"We’ve used heliguy™ since it was based in Alnwick selling hobby RC helicopters. We used to fly little quads round the office for fun.

"Our first 'proper’ drone was a DJI Phantom 2 and it was a game-changer. We immediately saw the potential for using drone images for Wi-Fi and CCTV surveys.

"Our experience of heliguy™ is excellent - it has great customer service and nothing is too much trouble. We did our PfCO with Heliguy and it was really straightforward. We have no need to use anyone else for anything drone-related."

Stephen Pinchen (pictured above)

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