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Openreach Aerial Drone Brings Rural Full Fibre Broadband to Village in Wales

Thursday, November 30th, 2017 (9:00 am) - Score 6,045

Sometimes getting fibre optic cable from one point to another over difficult terrain (rivers, unstable rocks etc.) can be tricky, which is partly why Openreach (BT) has today become one of the first in the world to use an aerial drone to help deploy the cable for a new FTTP network in the village of Pontfadog.

The development itself shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, not least because Openreach has previously hinted about their plans to test such an approach and BT’s mobile sibling (EE) also appears to have gained plenty of experience in the field by using similar technology to deploy 4G mobile connectivity (details). Nevertheless using a drone to carry optical fibre cables is a very different challenge.

In this example the target for Openreach’s first public test was the small rural village of Pontfadog in the rugged Ceiriog Valley (Wrexham, North Wales), which until recently would have struggled to get much more than a handful of Megabits (ADSL MAX) out of the local Glyn Ceiriog exchange.

The good news is that a new 1Gbps capable Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) based “ultrafast broadband” network has now been rolled out to almost the whole village on the valley floor. Sadly around 20 premises sat further up one side of the valley (described locally as the “dark side” of the village), which made them tricky to reach.

In other words, digging trenches and erecting roadside cabinets wasn’t an option. Wireless and Satellite solutions were also been ruled out, although it’s unclear why (Openreach don’t appear to build those, so that may be the main reason).

At least they were tricky, until a group of Openreach’s engineers used a portable drone to land cabling on the isolated group of homes.

openreach aerial drone landed

The deployment itself took place as part of the state aid support Superfast Cymru programme, which aims to make “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) services available to around 95% of Wales (currently around 92% of premises can already order “superfast” speeds of 24Mbps+). Many of those that are left to finish off under the current contract will use FTTP instead of slower hybrid fibre FTTC (VDSL2) connections.

We should point out that the Welsh Government are currently consulting on a plan to extend this roll-out so that “fast reliable broadband” (defined as 30Mbps+) can reach “every property” in Wales by 2020 (here).

Andy Whale, Openreach’s Chief Engineer, said:

“It’s a bit different to connecting an apartment block in London, that’s for sure. We managed to connect up virtually the whole village in the valley floor, but getting to this group of 20 houses up one side of the valley was a bit trickier.

There’s a particularly steep drop-off from these houses back down the valley, and it’s covered in dense trees and scrubland. We also had the river running along the bottom to contend with, so dragging a cable and digging it in wasn’t really an option.

If we tried running the cable through woods it was also very likely we’d get it caught up in branches and other natural obstructions, so we figured the best option was to fly it in over the top of the tree canopy and then lift it up to make sure it was clear of the tree line.

Had we tried to lay the cable using standard methods, even if it were possible, this process would have taken days, but in the event it took us less than an hour. We’re constantly trialing new techniques and technologies to help us take fibre broadband further and faster, and importantly to drive delivery costs down.

All 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.”

At this point any buddying drone enthusiast will point out that the kit being used by Openreach is too small to lift all that cable over any kind of distance and you’d be right. Instead the drone was hooked up to a length of high strength fishing line, which was then flown around 100 meters and dropped across the top of the trees. That line was attached to a draw-rope – itself attached to a fibre cable – and the cable was then pulled over.

Openreach said they were “not aware of this technique being used anywhere in the world to deliver fixed line broadband in such a situation,” although the basic idea of using drones to carry new cabling is not a new one (e.g. they’ve already been used to help connect cables for new bridges).

The operator is now likely to conduct further trials and after that they will considers “plans to equip and train selected engineers to pilot drones in engineering teams across the UK.”

UPDATE 11:04am

For any drone enthusiasts out there, Openreach are using the DJI Mavic Pro (costs around £800-£1000). The flyer weighs 750g and has a flight time of 27 minutes per battery, with a max payload of 1.5lbs, plus collision avoidance sensors to help dodge the heads of local engineering teams and a 4K stabilised motorised camera.

Openreach also used a custom 3D printed release mechanism for the cable.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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28 Responses
  1. Matthew Williams says:

    Interesting solution to a vexing problem.

  2. NGA for all says:

    Great to see.

  3. Reflection says:

    The Superfast Cymru programme does not in itself aim to make “fibre broadband” (FTTC/P) services available to around 95% of premises in Wales. BT is obliged to provide access to superfast broadband, with a download speed of at least 30Mbps, to 90 per cent of properties in the intervention area. In addition there is an ‘ambition’ to reach another 5% of properties in the intervention area. The tested and verified at the end of August showed BT had provided access to fast fibre broadband to over 86% of the intervention area. The current overall figure of 92%, in the article, probably includes a lot of properties outside the Superfast Cymru project.

    Recently, the Superfast Cymru project started stating on the checker:
    “The Superfast Cymru roll-out ends on 31st December 2017. Please check back after this date for an update on the status of your premises. Not all premises in Wales will be completed under this project.”

    The Openreach checker now shows that a significant number of properties that were in scope appear to have been dropped. For anyone interested in Superfast Cymru, the minutes of the Welsh Assembly Debate on the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee report: Digital Infrastructure in Wales on 22 November 2017 are worth looking at http://record.assembly.wales/Plenary/4660#A39950
    There is currently a webcast of that meeting: http://www.senedd.tv/Meeting/Archive/47f19c1d-b832-483f-b5b2-358ff79eaaf6

    Whilst BT may be achieved much in the Superfast Cymru, it does not appear to be as much as many people might think. There are clearly people already frustrated and disappointed, which is probably not surprising given the target date for current rollout was June 2017. There are many understandable questions and concerns to which there are no answers and solutions. On 1 January 2018, it looks the situation will be worse, not better for some.

    1. Gadget says:

      So if I read your comment correctly the August shortfall is 4% of the intervention area? how many properties is that?

    2. Reflection says:

      “A total of 767,000 premises have been identified as eligible under the scheme, these premises make up what is known as the intervention area.”

      The maths suggest a possible shortfall, at the end of August, of some 30,680 premises. And that does not appear to include any shortfall in the ‘ambitions.’

  4. jeep says:

    Good to see someone using there noggin on solving a problem with todays available equipment & getting on with it.

  5. Optimist says:

    Good to see. But some of the things done in other countries are rather scary – I watched a vdeo yesterday of an electrical grid maintemance team in the USA doing work of a high-voltage line while the power was on from a helicopter! They could have been toast any minute!

    1. Tim says:

      Lol. No ground no shock.

    2. Optimist says:

      The sight of helicopter blades slicing through high-tension cables would have been quite shocking..

    3. MikeW says:

      The Beeb has a 2010 story showing National Grid practicing this. No idea if it made it into operational service.

    4. Joe says:

      I would have thought given the hourly running cost for a copter it would not make much sense in any but rare circumstances.

    5. MikeW says:

      I guess it depends how much income the Grid loses when a line isn’t carrying power on behalf of the generators.

    6. Peter says:

      You should see them trimming trees/branches near power lines with powered cutters from a helicopter in the States – now that really IS nuts

  6. Mark says:

    The drone was restricted to flying at 1 mph to bring it in line with the speed that Openreach works at!

    1. Oggy says:

      Top bantz!

  7. CarlT says:

    Entertaining but how about getting on with the FTTP on their own tab in urban areas? Inventive and interesting as it is seeing our taxes being spent subsidising madly expensive FTTP getting shot of the copper-enhancing mess around here would be marvelous.

    1. NGA for all says:

      It is strange to say, but one of the biggest benefits BDUK is unlikely to claim is to show just how relatively cheap Fibre rollout is and thus adding pressure to solve urban areas. FTTC total (partial capacity) for UK is currently £2.5bn, not £5bn as estimated by BSG/Analysis Mason in 2009. £1bn of the £2.5bn is state aid, much of which will need to be paid back or hopefully put into proving how relatively cheap FTTP is.
      On FTTP some very rural areas are being done £1,000-£1,2000 not the £3-£5k predicted and this is still before the benefits of sunset dates for telephony are deployed.
      A revised Openreach plan re-balancing copper based solutions and fibre is overdue. Keeping adding cabs and pods will keep marginalising and increasing the internal hurdles to the FTTP case. The lessons from rural should help re-write the case.

    2. TheFacts says:

      @NGA – how do you propose dealing with LLU?

    3. Gadget says:

      The way this rollout process has been driven the less-expensive lines are always done first, true for both Commercial and the various phases of BDUK. So whatever the unit cost currently is it is only going to get bigger as the more difficult, longer and more expensive lines are handled. Clearly an instance where taking the current average as the remaining average is going to be completely wrong.

  8. Ultraspeedy says:

    A clever idea by Openreach to make life easier for them. Not sure it is anything more than that though given copper lines and a pole must have been put there somehow years ago before drones were available.
    If it sped up the time it took and made work easier though then i guess it was objective achieved. I hope now in similar areas where deployment is difficult they now have a solution, lets hope we see more of this solution rather than just the ‘too difficult’ to deploy excuse.

    1. FibreFred says:

      What have the poles got to do with it? They needed to get fibre from A to B across a river. Rather than dig and some how get it across the river they got a drone to do it.

      Great idea and yes it about making their job easier, obviously.

    2. Mike says:

      I think what he is obviously saying is that if they previously managed to drag a pole and copper cables which hang from that pole across the terrain, then laying fibre would had been possible with or without a drone. The copper wires must cross the river or go around it in some fashion so logically fibre cables could also. All the drone has done as he also states is made the job easier and quicker. It most certainly did not make something which was impossible to do now possible.

      Oh and before you go on your typical attack of me. I also actually congratulate BT, anything that speeds up rollout is a good thing and anything that makes a job they previously deem too much work possible is also good.

    3. FibreFred says:

      “All the drone has done as he also states is made the job easier and quicker.”

      And cheaper.

      Things like this could be the difference between do and don’t

    4. 125us says:

      Cost is less important I’d imagine when there’s a USO in place, as there is for telephony. Fibre isn’t part of the USO so any given installation has to cost in. Without the cover of a USO and in a competitive market selling under cost is a difficult thing to do without breaking the competiton act.

  9. Mark says:

    I live surrounded by superfast enabled homes and still only get 4mb down and almost nothing up. No one seems to care that much and openreach just say that is the way it is and there is nothing they can do. How do you think I feel reading this?

    1. Fastman says:

      so mark are you in a BDUk enabled area and covered under a BDUK project — that’s the first question you need to ascertain – I assume you are connected to a small cab or exchange only with only a few homes so the value for money criteria is not good (on the cost of upgrade is not good either for Openreach or a BDUK project if you are covered by one — don’t assume the last 5% all to be in the middle of nowhere —

    2. CarlT says:

      Fastman: just FYI Hunslet 82 is a bit ridiculous now.

      1 * Huawei 288 full
      1 * Huawei 288 extended to 384 ports
      1 * G.fast pod

      All hanging off a PCP that’s been extended with a standoff shell to supply extra blocks.

      Wouldn’t FTTP have been easier in the longer run?

    3. Ultraspeedy says:

      If G.Fast turns out to be popular with that current FTTC line up you could possibly end up with another 4 or more G.Fast pods. I hope they are not all in the same street in a line.

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