One year on from an experiment that saw national network builder Openreach using a drone to “lay” fibre-optic broadband cables across challenging terrain in North Wales, the organisation is increasing its use of aerial technology to help it access the remotest of rural properties in the Scottish Highlands.
It is currently engaged on a community broadband project near Inverness – one of a number in the region being part funded by a local windfarm operator – through which 37 scattered homes around the community of Glenmazeran are to receive a gigabit-capable full-fibre broadband connection.
It has already buried armoured cables along 10km of single-track road running through a glen alongside the River Findhorn, but in order to reach one of the homes, needed to cross the fast-flowing river itself.
“Although Glenmazeran is only 20 miles from Inverness, the properties are very remote and scattered,” said Kevin Drain, chief engineer for the north of Scotland at Openreach. “We’ve had to contend with steep drops and bankings as we buried cable along the single-track road.”
“But the biggest challenge was reaching one remote home, 400 metres away from the main route, where the fibre cable needed to span a 50-metre wide stretch of river. In the past, we’ve tried all sorts of ways to do this – like attaching cables to fishing lines, golf balls and even hammers, which frankly proved hit and miss.”
To access the property, Openreach engineers underwent a week’s training to be certified by the Civil Aviation Authority to fly drones commercially before flying a cable across the river itself.
“This is the first time we’ve used a drone to drop fibre into place here in Scotland and as a delivery method it’s unbeatable,” said Drain. “Drones will now become part of our toolkit to reach places where the terrain means traditional engineering is difficult or impossible.”
Robert Thorburn, partnership director for Openreach in Scotland, added: “Our engineers love nothing more than a challenge and Glenmazeran has provided us with a great opportunity to test our skills. We’re constantly working on new techniques and technologies to help us take fibre broadband further and faster, and, importantly, to drive down delivery costs.
“This may be one of the quirkier uses for a drone, but innovations like this means we can now deliver high-speed broadband in situations where traditionally it’s been impossible for any business or partnership to justify the work.”
In the past 18 months, Openreach has taken a number of steps internally to innovate around the process of network planning and building, such as introducing machine learning algorithms into the mix to produce optimal network plans based on factors such as inventory and engineer availability.