SK Telecom inspects cell towers for safety using drones and AI
SK Telecom, South Korea’s largest wireless carrier, announced on Tuesday that it’s developed a new cell tower safety inspection system using drones and image analysis artificial intelligence (AI). The newly-developed image analysis AI model checks the status of nuts and bolts by analyzing images taken by drones.
Cell towers with antennas for sending and receiving telecommunications signals are installed across the country, with their maximum height estimated at 75 meters. Since cell towers require regular maintenance to prevent accidents that can be caused by deterioration such as corrosion or loosening of nuts and bolts, specialized personnel had to climb them to inspect their condition with their bare eyes.
Engineers from a subsidiary of SK Telecom Co. inspect a cell tower in this photo provided by the wireless carrier on Jan. 31, 2023.
Now with an intelligent safety inspection system in place, not only can SK Telecom prevent accidents due to aging cell towers, but it can also ensure the safety of workers by minimizing the need to go up the cell towers. Moreover, the company can drive up work productivity through the application of an AI model that automatically identifies defects by analyzing images taken by drones.
Previously, safety inspectors had to study around 100 images to complete the inspection of one cell tower by inspecting multiple images taken by drones. With the adoption of the new AI analysis model, SK Telecom has been able to reduce the time required for the process by 95%, while increasing the reliability and consistency of the analysis results.
The company says, going forward, it will enhance the system even further by adding inspection items such as wind pressure safety/inclination. It will also look to improve the AI model and link the application with the safety management system.
In addition to drone-based cell tower inspections, the telecom company is actively applying AI to other areas of its network, including equipment error/anomaly detection, power cost reduction, and work completion inspection.
Park Myung-soon, SKT’s vice president and head of Infra DT Office, said: “By building an intelligent safety inspection system that can complement the existing visual inspection, we have secured greater safety for workers. We will continue to make efforts to achieve AI transformation of our telecommunication networks, while focusing on developing our field workers into experts who can develop and operate AI.”
South Korean telecom giant innovates safety inspection with drones
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SKT is arguably more invested in AI than any other telco worldwide. Back in November, company executives announced plans that put AI at the very heart of SKT’s future strategy. “We will transform our core businesses into AI-based businesses to secure new growth drivers, offer AI services to deepen customer relations and employ AIX strategy to spread SK Telecom’s AI and digital transformation capabilities to other industries,” said Jinwon Kim, the operator’s chief financial officer.
Evidence of this approach could be seen at MWC, where SKT was eager to parade some of its AI partners and innovation. “We’re accelerating AI transformation with Korean AI companies,” said Jang Seong-ho, SKT’s AI business development team leader, during a conversation with Light Reading. “Together with partners, we’re trying to build an AI ecosystem in the global market, including the US.”
Phantom AI is one such partner. Founded in 2016, and based in Silicon Valley, it is developing algorithms for use in so-called advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), where vehicles would be only partly autonomous. Industry people refer to five levels of vehicle autonomy, with 1 meaning basic driver assistance and 5 describing a car that takes humans entirely out of the driving process – allowing the person who sits behind the wheel to knit, read novels or sleep.
“We are not targeting level 4 or 5 full autonomy but focusing on levels 2 and 3,” said Cho Hyung-gi, Phantom AI’s founder and CEO, who met with Light Reading at SKT’s stand. His company now has a contract with a major vehicle manufacturer and hopes to be in production by the final quarter of this year.
SKT’s practical involvement with Phantom AI seems to lie on the semiconductor side through an affiliate called Sapeon. Like Phantom, it is headquartered in California but wholly owned by SK Group, the parent company of SKT and South Korea’s second-largest “chaebol,” or conglomerate, after Samsung. Viewed as a potential rival to Nvidia, Sapeon is currently working on AI chips that could be used for servers and edge devices as well as in ADAS, said Jang.
“That is the idea,” Cho told Light Reading. “The subsidiary is well-known, and they are making an innovative AI chipset and we are purely software and so we see the synergy between Phantom and Sapeon.” A low-cost system-on-a-chip (SoC) priced at between $20 and $30 could be vital in helping Phantom target a mass market of lower-priced vehicles, Cho explained. “Tesla is using a very powerful and expensive SoC, but we are running on a low-cost chip so that we can deploy to millions.”