As their name suggests, cellular towers are built well above ground level to help wireless signals reach as far as possible — locations that have traditionally required professional tower climbers for both network installations and adjustments. Today, Samsung is debuting a drone-based AI solution for tower antenna adjustments that will replace multi-hour, sometimes dangerous tower climbs with a 15-minute smartphone-controlled flight and verification process.

In its initial form, Samsung’s solution lets engineers use smartphones to remotely control camera-equipped drones, snapping photos of tower antennas for transmission to cloud-based servers. Deep learning AI on the servers verifies the rotation and tilt of the antennas compared with their predefined optimal angles, letting engineers know within less than a minute whether the antennas have been correctly installed. Samsung says a subsequent feature update will enable engineers to remotely tilt the antennas using smartphones and PCs.

The company has already tested the system successfully at its campus in Seoul, South Korea and expects it to be especially helpful in the United States, where tower climbs for verification or adjustment typically require two people and advanced safety training. A shortage of tower climbers in the U.S. has threatened to slow the progress of 5G network installations, so there’s real value in a drone-based AI system that can either cut the need for climbing personnel or improve engineer safety.

Drones are expected to handle a variety of tasks in the 5G era, including various remote monitoring and emergency response functions, as well as policing, package deliveries, and video recording — assuming future 5G network bandwidth lives up to expectations. But drones’ use in helping to actually build out 5G networks is a new twist that — along with future AI innovations — could eventually lead to constantly self-improving networks.

Samsung plans to launch its drone-based AI network verification and adjustment system globally later in 2020. This will likely be used to upgrade existing 4G network towers with 5G capabilities, as well as adding new 5G small cell sites in dense urban areas — since millimeter wave towers are particularly sensitive to signal reduction from nearby impediments and benefit from precision alignment.