How drones have transformed the work of technology firm

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.

By James Willoughby
Friday, 22 February, 2019, 13:00
The Alncom team at Cawledge Business Park, Alnwick.

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

The 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.

Alncom's wi-fi survey using a drone, looking towards Powburn.

Stephen Pinchen, Alncom managing director, said: “Our first ‘proper’ drone (a DJI Phantom 2) was a game-changer. We immediately saw the potential for using drone images for wi-fi and CCTV surveys.”

Alncom also flies UAVs to capture footage for promotional material, showcasing the company’s work to roll out broadband in Northumberland and illustrating just how effective drones can be for filmographers.

The company purchased its fleet of drones – including a mix of Inspire, Spark and Mavic aircraft – from North Shields-based UAV industry specialist Heliguy.

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

An image from a drone used to place a CCTV camera at a Northumberland farm.

It aims to complement rather than compete with traditional telecoms providers, such as BT. The company maps BT’s planned cable broadband rollout and follows up 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,” said Mr 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.

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.

“However, with a drone, we can fly to antenna height, take a high-resolution 360 photo, then analyse it on our phones.

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“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.”

Amazingly, a UAV can capture a 360-degree picture 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 study

Among those to have benefited from Alncom’s broadband roll-out are residents and businesses based at Linhope Estate. 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.

But Alncom 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.

Lord James Percy, of Linhope Estate, said: “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.”

Stephen said: “The Linhope job 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.”y 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.”

Drones in 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 had 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.”

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