Intelligent Site Engineering: A new era for the deployment and maintenance of network sites

As communications service providers around the world continue to evolve their 4G networks and deploy 5G, increased network complexities and financial and competitive pressures require more efficient ways to deploy and manage them. At the core of the network, deployment is site engineering, which encompasses all the required steps in the process of designing a network site.

Intelligent Site Engineering: A new era for the deployment and maintenance of network sites

Intelligent Site Engineering is an innovative way of working for the planning, site design, and acceptance of network roll-out projects such as extensions, modernizations, or swaps. It is now possible to have enhanced visibility and control when intelligence is applied to site engineering – therefore, we view Intelligent Site Engineering as an integral part of the standard deployment process to drive efficiency. Despite their important role in the deployment process, traditional site engineering approaches have their limitations and are ripe for digital transformation. Many of these issues are explored in this paper: rising costs of site visits including multiple site visits and the associated travel lengths and environmental implications, excess or waste material due to inaccuracies in measurements, and human errors. Moreover, skilled tower climbers are in short supply today, and tower climbs present significant safety risks.

Our Intelligent Site Engineering service not only eliminates many of the risks and pain points for service providers but also expands current capabilities. With digitalized sites and the creation of digital twins, engineers can remotely access the site with the highest degree of accuracy and predictability when taking measurements and making engineering decisions. Beyond site deployment, accurate and detailed data provides additional benefits such as savings in operational support costs, as well as facilitating planning and future network upgrades. The service improves the deployment process by increasing accuracy, efficiency, speed, and sustainability. Our work so far indicates that site revisits due to quality issues in the survey phase have now been reduced from 1 in 10 to 1 in every 1,000 sites. Projects in North America have shown that site material list creation times have been reduced by over 40 percent. Remote site engineering work can now include quantifying site materials and equipment, all while reducing tower climbs and minimizing personnel and project risks. A site survey can now be completed by one engineer in as little as one hour.

Content Summary

Executive summary
Introduction
The traditional site engineering process
Innovating with Intelligent Site Engineering
Delivering results
Intelligent solutions
Why choose Intelligent Site Engineering?
Conclusion

Executive summary

At the core of the network, deployment is site engineering, which encompasses all the required steps in the process of designing a network site. Intelligent Site Engineering is an innovative way of working for the planning, site design, and acceptance of network roll-out projects such as extensions, modernizations, or swaps. It is now possible to have enhanced visibility and control when intelligence is applied to site engineering – therefore, we view Intelligent Site Engineering as an integral part of the standard deployment process to drive efficiency.

Despite their important role in the deployment process, traditional site engineering approaches have their limitations and are ripe for digital transformation. Many of these issues are explored in this paper: rising costs of site visits including multiple site visits and the associated travel lengths and environmental implications, excess or waste material due to inaccuracies in measurements, and human errors. Moreover, skilled tower climbers are in short supply today, and tower climbs present significant safety risks.

Our Intelligent Site Engineering service not only eliminates many of the risks and pain points for service providers but also expands current capabilities. With digitalized sites and the creation of digital twins, engineers can remotely access the site with the highest degree of accuracy and predictability when taking measurements and making engineering decisions. Beyond site deployment, accurate and detailed data provides additional benefits such as savings in operational support costs, as well as facilitating planning and future network upgrades.

The service improves the deployment process by increasing accuracy, efficiency, speed, and sustainability. Our work so far indicates that site revisits due to quality issues in the survey phase have now been reduced from 1 in 10 to 1 in every 1,000 sites. Projects in North America have shown that site material list creation times have been reduced by over 40 percent. Remote site engineering work can now include quantifying site materials and equipment, all while reducing tower climbs and minimizing personnel and project risks. A site survey can now be completed by one engineer in as little as one hour

Introduction

Data capture and processing techniques are set to continue developing as today’s technologies progress alongside our continuously trained AI (artificial intelligence) algorithms, delivering true value throughout the whole network life cycle.

With high demands on network deployment, service providers need to digitalize their site engineering processes so that time-consuming and often risk-inducing on-site visits can shift to a safer and more efficient remote standard. As 4G and 5G network deployments grow to meet capacity demands and expand coverage, service providers must rise to the challenge of engineering sites more efficiently than ever before.

This paper explores the limitations of the current ways of working and demonstrates how using Ericsson’s Intelligent Site Engineering can empower service providers to work smarter from both an operational and financial perspective. With over 20,000 sites digitalized for leading network operators around the world, the Intelligent Site Engineering methodology has been proven to be effective over the last few years.

Our techniques involve leveraging the latest technologies in data capturing and processing techniques based on ever-evolving AI algorithms. These techniques provide true value in the whole network life cycle, so we will continue to develop them as technologies advance further.

The future possibilities are even more compelling once network sites have been digitalized. There is much more that can be done when site materials are automatically calculated (and potentially ordered) and when time-consuming activities, such as site acceptance, can be automated.

As global network deployments continue to gather pace and networks continue to evolve to 5G, we acknowledge a growing list of requirements that need to be addressed for service providers:

  • Faster deployment and reduced time-to-market
  • Focus on sustainability when deploying networks
  • Embrace emerging technologies such as AR (Augmented Reality) to amplify site data
  • “First time right” in-network deployment
  • Increased safety for deployment personnel
  • Better predictability and simplification of maintenance
  • Enhanced visibility for the management of multi-tenant networks
  • Increased quality in site documentation and inventories
  • More flexible and adaptable networks that scale dynamically

The traditional site engineering process

Site engineering is an important stage in the network deployment process and incorporates all the steps required to design and deploy a network site.

Before the actual equipment installation occurs, thorough site investigation, design, and planning stages must be carried out to ensure network equipment is installed to the customer’s exact requirements.

Site survey

During the site survey phase, experts visit and document a network site by capturing all the necessary information to facilitate the planning and deployment of the required new telecommunications equipment. This is a critical step as a lack of detail can result in expensive site revisits.

Previously, a typical site survey would involve physically climbing to investigate telecommunication towers and similar infrastructure. This determines where new equipment can be installed, which materials can be reused or scrapped, and what new materials might need to be ordered. This can pose safety risks and increase costs, as expert climbers demand high compensation and are in short supply. Even then, key details can be missed or recorded incorrectly.

Other survey missions may involve a person taking ground-level photography to record relevant details – initially promptly and inexpensively. However, the associated costs of doing this can add up significantly over time as not every detail can always be captured.

Detailed site design

The detailed site design involves compiling and analyzing all the information collected during the site survey stage, therefore validating the preliminary solution design and its conformity to local standards. The main output from this phase is the site installation documentation, which is the primary instruction for the technicians who will install the network equipment on site.

When designing a new network site, the new equipment must be adapted to the existing site specifications, allowing for the reuse of equipment and infrastructure wherever possible. For many years, engineering activities have been built on information that is collected and compiled manually, and then entered into analytical software such as spreadsheet editors.

When this work is done manually, mistakes are inevitable. For example, if the site surveyor forgets to record certain information or does so incorrectly, the task will need to be redone, resulting in delays and increased travel costs to return to the site, as well as excess material costs. On average, site revisits are required for 10 percent of the sites.

As-built documentation

Once the equipment is installed (separately from the engineering process), the as-built documentation phase involves a site engineer updating the site installation documentation with any changes that might have occurred during the installation. Photos are usually added to showcase the new equipment so the installation and placement stages can be visually verified. After this step, the main deliverable is comprehensive customer site documentation that can be used as a reference point for later in the process.

Figure 1: The site engineering process stages

Innovating with Intelligent Site Engineering

The innovative technologies that underpin Intelligent Site Engineering demand robust processes to capitalize on their benefits – especially during the early adoption phase.

By utilizing the latest techniques, site digitalization can be performed with high accuracy, resulting in optimized site designs that closely capture the actual assets. Utilizing data to drive the site design ensures there are no surprises and enhances predictability. Other associated benefits also help enhance the full life cycle of a network. For example, downtimes can be minimized with visual intelligence applications enabling preventive maintenance. Rust in towers and loose connectors in antenna ports can quickly be identified and reported thanks to AI and machine learning (ML) models enabled by Intelligent Site Engineering.

Modernizing site surveys

The data-driven methodology of Intelligent Site Engineering involves capturing a site’s unique attributes with high levels of accuracy, regardless of the site’s location or general health. The procedure covers both indoor and exterior sites, such as rooftops, towers, and monopoles. The data collected is validated and uploaded to a site digitalization platform and then further processed creating a full digital replica – or “digital twin” – of the site.

Enhanced capabilities

Our digitalized sites enable remote engineering and decisions with a high degree of accuracy, delivering precise and reliable measurements as a result. Once the site survey is complete, a report is created and used on an interim basis for the site design phase, serving as an information-rich asset to help engineers design the site.

Once data has been uploaded and the digital twin of a site is created, customers and key stakeholders can log onto the platform and embark on a virtual “site walk” so they can make informed decisions on their network sites. The process ensures high predictability with a “first time right” success rate of close to 100 percent.

Site design and other network life cycle activities are vastly improved, as our leading AI algorithms analyze the data and insert this analysis into the dataset. 3D point clouds are translated into editable computer-aided design (CAD) data, which then feeds into our Building Information Modeling (BIM) system. This enables the automation of design projects, including modeling of equipment and services.

The final step

The completed site design feeds straight into the site installation phase. With Intelligent Site Engineering, site crews can receive detailed design information into their mobile devices with precise installation guidance. Product information with guidelines and checklists is also easily accessed via our intelligent deployment site applications. We also use built-in tools to ensure compliance with occupational health and safety (OHS) standards for site staff.

Once installation is complete, a final report and all corresponding documentation can be prepared and approved by all parties. It is possible to use our data-driven deployment platform to digitalize and automate the site acceptance flow process and therefore improve lead-time, consistency, and quality.

Based on the information already collected and the predefined acceptance criteria, sites can be signed off by using a single digital portal put in place for tracking and visualization of acceptance items’ progress and approvals. Furthermore, with security and trust at the heart of the process, technologies such as blockchain will further assist in safeguarding items and enabling future expansion to other use cases.

Figure 2: Intelligent Site Engineering enhances the whole network deployment life cycle

Delivering results

We have used the Intelligent Site Engineering methodology for several years now – around 27,000 sites have been digitalized for leading network service providers around the world. Each case is its own success story.

Customer success story: Vodafone UK

As one of the UK’s largest network providers, Vodafone UK required an innovative solution to help improve operations and reduce downtime considerably.

With our Intelligent Site Engineering solution, enabled by drone and Lidar-based technology, Vodafone UK has sped up its network infrastructure deployments and extended its reach within both urban and rural areas throughout the UK. By implementing remote, data-driven measures for site maintenance and upgrades, Vodafone UK has greatly improved the end-user experience and secured a competitive marketplace advantage.

Björn Odenhammar, Chief Technology Officer, Networks & Managed Services, Ericsson UK & Ireland, said: “Our partnership with Vodafone to explore the benefits of Intelligent Site Engineering ensures that speed and sustainability are at the heart of our network rollout in the UK together.”

Intelligent Site Engineering is improving network site operations across the board

Customer success story: TDC NET, Denmark

As part of its mission to shape Denmark’s digital future, TDC NET partnered with Ericsson to use the very latest in drone, 3D modeling, AI, and ML technologies to deploy their new 5G network. With the application of Intelligent Site Engineering, site surveys and digitalization of over 200 network sites across Denmark were performed to ensure the fastest and most accurate 5G roll-out possible.

In the past, each survey would have taken a full team several hours of on-site surveying at each location, often with the deployment of a crane to meet Danish health and safety regulations, along with several hours of post-survey analysis to complete the appropriate engineering decisions. With the help of Intelligent Site Engineering, network performance has been dramatically improved in terms of quality and speeds.

Intelligent solutions

Intelligent solutions require smart technologies and approaches. Continued advancements typify the long-term benefits associated with Intelligent Site Engineering and ensure the methodology is future-proof.

Flying high with drones

We have been actively working with drones since 2015 when a global study was initiated into line-of-sight applications and other inspection use cases using these devices. Overall, the study was a great success. By the end of 2016, our field services in the UK had trained a team of 12 pilots, which grew to around 25 by 2018. As a result, microwave line-of-sight issues are now investigated by drones as a standard practice in the UK.

Drone site surveys required a different approach, as there was no intuitive way to navigate the data collected from the drone – a folder with 500 photos to search through would add little value to the process. A data storage system was needed to help solve the problem, rather than add to it. With this service, we offer a streamlined solution to the optimization of site digitalization.

Data capture

3D photogrammetry saw significant advancements in the preceding decade, meaning that we are now able to use the geotagged photos taken with a drone to produce tridimensional models and accurately take measurements on the resulting point-cloud digital representation of the site. All this has been made possible by combining this 3D model with inspection photos to bring both measurements and detailed pictures to one platform.

We have developed and patented groundbreaking solutions to potential problems discovered during site digitalization, all of which vary in scope. When creating a 3D model of a tower, for example, a lot of background imagery can obscure parts of the tower, rendering the result unusable. A patented ML algorithm can now eliminate everything except for the focal point of the survey, enabling the platform to produce accurate digital twins of network sites.

Another problem to solve was the need for ground-based inspection photos to be provided both inside cabinets and within equipment rooms. For this, we adopted scanning cameras, 360-degree cameras, and laser scanners. The scanning cameras are not effective in sunlight so mostly work indoors, due to the infrared light required to augment the 360-degree photos. Laser scanners, on the other hand, work both indoors and outdoors. They also enable surveyors to scan rooftops and towers where we may not be able to safely fly drones.

Recent advancements in technology mean today’s drones are reliable, easy to fly and benefit from inertial measurement units, high-quality cameras, and other sensors. The “prosumer” end of the market now has plenty of drones capable of taking high-quality photos of 20 megapixels and above from a stabilized camera, tagged with metadata detailing the camera pose and its position in 3D space.

Modern laser scanners are lightweight and intuitive to use, with the ability to scan items from a considerable distance with precision. Laser scanners can produce a point-cloud 3D model that looks very similar to the photogrammetry model but is typically more accurate – sub-centimeter accuracy can often be attained.

360-degree cameras enable walkthrough tours of buildings and rooms and even outdoor spaces. We can also add tags to detailed photos from other cameras and easily update these tags as the site evolves.

Data capture is a key component of network site digitalization

Building digital twins

The digital twin approach takes all the previously mentioned technology and acts as a digital version of the site that can be accessed by those involved in the project. Design collaboration is instant and free of travel, so changes can be made efficiently.

The point-cloud models produced by the photogrammetry and laser scans can be accessed within CAD systems and used as the basis for drawings. BIM systems allow for modeling without the need for a site redesign.

Detailed “digital twins” are digital versions of actual network sites

The design module results in the production of an accurate bill of materials (BoM) in line with a specific site’s needs and is integrated with sourcing systems to facilitate much shorter lead times for network deployment activities. As a result, the correct materials and parts required for an engineer to carry out the repairs or upgrades can be ordered well in advance before the first site visit takes place. Going forward, automation will enable the creation of a virtual catalog featuring all relevant products used on the site for quick and easy reference.

With all these elements combined, Intelligent Site Engineering makes it possible to inspect at-height elements without climbing and to measure cable lengths, heights, tilts, and azimuths from a remote location. Because the design module and algorithms are evolving rapidly, we foresee that full automation is within reach.

Network innovation during a global pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic should be noted as a milestone in the site engineering transformation journey, which further proved the viability of the Intelligent Site Engineering solution. Thanks to our world-class technology and hardworking teams, we ensured 5G deployment for service providers went ahead as planned, with multiple commercial launches despite the challenging circumstances.

When COVID-19 put a stop to non-essential travel, we used video conferencing to screen share from the device that was being used to control drones. With high-quality image resolution and highly reliable connectivity, enabled by low-latency mobile broadband we were able to provide real-time guidance to field teams. As a result of this success, we were able to arrange for fully remote site visits for relevant stakeholders. Thanks to digital twins, a site design can be signed off two weeks earlier than it would have been under traditional methods.

New business propositions

As service providers continue to look for innovative methods for asset monetization, a trend of spinning off infrastructure – including towers – is growing. To improve the value of these strategic assets, service providers are utilizing existing infrastructural property to, in some cases, form entirely new companies. In Europe, the top three tower companies jointly have a portfolio that exceeds half of the market. This number is likely to grow as 5G deployments take place and more sites are needed. Co-tenancy, or the ability to host network equipment from different service providers in the same tower structure, will empower tower companies to capture a lot of value with 5G. As network deployments increase, a flexible solution to capture and digitalize this ever-growing number of assets is fundamental for the success of tower companies’ business models.

Why choose Intelligent Site Engineering?

Intelligent Site Engineering addresses key pain points with proven results and enhances the working capabilities of site engineering teams.

  • 99% “first time right“ accuracy: Intelligent Site Engineering delivers high predictability in network deployment, bolstering efficiency throughout a network’s entire life cycle.
  • Efficiency through AI and ML: Algorithms help to automatically recognize equipment and infrastructure, enabling optimal setup for new hardware and facilitating further maintenance.
  • Embracing “digital twins”: Full site digitalization allows teams to focus on surveying via digital platforms, often remotely, which increases value for sites of all sizes.
  • Faster deployments: Lead time from “survey complete” to “design complete” is reduced by 50 percent, thanks to added automation and a reduction in idle time.
  • 24/7 global remote access: Remote access offers a complete view of any given site on a 24-hour basis, wherever it is in the world.
  • Strengthening safety standards: Less time spent on the road traveling and climbing towers is a marked improvement for day-to-day safety standards.
  • Sustainable deployments: Capturing accurate information during the first site visit means less travel is required, reducing the impact on the environment.
  • Effective maintenance: Maintenance benefits, such as identifying rust in towers and loose connectors in antenna ports, can quickly be reported with visual intelligence enabled by AI and ML models.

Conclusion

Intelligent Site Engineering represents a transformative change for network site deployment, surveillance, and maintenance.

Intelligent Site Engineering embodies many of the technological changes occurring in society on a wider scale. As products, solutions, and services become more connected and automated across a range of industries, similar changes in the deployment of ever-evolving networks are inevitable. Continuing to adhere to traditional methods – such as manual site drawings and conducting physical site climbs – is becoming increasingly restrictive.

The technological advancements that underpin Intelligent Site Engineering not only make the process of network site engineering simpler, safer, and more productive, but they do so at reduced long-term cost. The accuracy of data provided by these innovative systems also frees up time for engineers to identify and address pertinent issues related to network quality, to the clear benefit of any service provider.

We are committed to developing and applying current and emerging technologies to make Intelligent Site Engineering a mode of operational efficiency that evolves to meet the needs of service providers from network deployment to acceptance, support, and maintenance, and generally enhancing the full life cycle of networks.

The future of network site engineering is now being embraced by leading service providers and network infrastructure owners looking to drive their business forward. Our Intelligent Site Engineering process empowers service providers with the capabilities needed to make an immediate shift towards forward-thinking systems and practices as technology continues to evolve. Our proven expertise, platforms, processes, and people can help them achieve significant improvements and continued success both in the near- and long-term across a range of areas, ensuring their networks and infrastructure assets stay at the forefront of technology.