The testing and measurement of radio frequency signals is a multi-million dollar business that relies on versatile hardware and sophisticated software. Now unmanned aerial vehicles, aka drones, are set to become an important part of the RF measurement industry. A U.S. startup called RDF Wireless, a Canadian subsidiary of Gap Wireless, and an Australian company called SIXARMS are three providers of drone-based RF test measurement services.

RDF Wireless, founded by tower industry veteran Phil Larsen, uses custom-made drones and a proprietary algorithm to map RF signals for clients in the public and private sectors. Larsen said the company’s drones weigh just 33 pounds fully loaded with equipment, putting them well below the Federal Aviation Administration’s 49 pound limit.

Anritsu and Tektronix are RDF’s two test equipment partners. The RDF drones typically keep the equipment 40 -50 feet away from the tower during signal testing.

“Drones don’t like RF because they use RF,” said Larsen. Nonetheless, customers and potential customers are telling him they want to use drones to test RF signals because the unmanned aerial vehicles can test from positions that humans cannot. Larsen also sees demand for drones as testers for satellite signals, and his company has acquired a specific spectrum analyzer for that purpose.

inUAVi is a drone provider formed by Canadian equipment supplier Gap Wireless. Marc Bouvrette, the president of both companies, said inUAVi offers network quality testing through an unnamed partner.

“For enterprises doing antenna inspections and deployments, real-time measurements can enable immediate adjustments to the network, provide more accurate measurements, and reduce the time required to inspect and adjust wireless equipment,” Bouvrette said.

inUAVi’s proprietary radio modules process signals in WCDMA and LTE bands, and can measure channel power, signal to noise ratios, and other spectrum parameters. The measurements are immediately transmitted to ground-based crews, who can read them in an iOS application.

Australia’s SIXARMS, formerly Innovative Drone Solutions, initially partnered with Signal Hound. The company mounted Signal Hound’s compact signal analyzer on a drone to characterize the radiation patterns of tower antennas.

Now SIXARMS is integrating RF measurement systems with several different drones from various manufacturers. The solution includes an integrated RF receiver and onboard computer, calibrated antennas and a ground control station that runs SIXARMS’ software. SIXARMS also offers the RF measurement system as a standalone solution that a company can mount onto its own drone.

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