Posted by Paul Moore on Jan 25, 2023
In 2020, global potash mining company Nutrien begins rolling out a private 4G LTE network – both surface and 1km underground in its potash mines in Saskatchewan, starting in Rocanville. Great progress has been made in that time – as of today above ground LTE is installed at all of Saskatchewan’s Nutrien mines – Rocanville, Allan, Lanigan, Cory, Patience Lake and Vanscoy – while underground coverage is expanding all the time.
For the projects, Nutrien brought in telecom network consulting firm and integrator Ambra Solutions, to design and deploy the network, leveraging advanced radio technology from Ericsson. Ericsson introduced LTE Wireless Access Network (RAN) along with Massive IoT (LTE-M / NB IoT) that can be upgraded to 5G NR. Ambra provided the Ambra Intelligent Tracking System (IPS) and Ambra Monitoring System along with services including engineering, 24/7 support, licensed spectrum and SIM cards.
In general, the old Nutrien communication systems consisted of an old analog phone system and a few Wi-Fi hotspots. Getting critical operation and maintenance information from the face of the mine to the control room would require someone to travel underground to the nearest Wi-Fi access point, which could take hours. Or they would have to physically carry the relevant pages copied from the paper log book to the control room.
Ambra worked with the Nutrien team to analyze tunnel conditions and communication requirements, then conducted extensive testing to determine the best approach. The consistency of the potash and the shape of the tunnels were the two main challenges, unlike other types of mines, the tunnels in potash mines are low and wide and the rock is very smooth. It is very difficult to propagate a radio signal in a low-ceilinged tunnel made of soft rocks such as potash. To add to the challenge, electricity was only available at tunnel junctions and in certain areas of the mine. So Ambra had to do field trials and use our propagation model to find the best locations for radio antennas.
“Nutrien has charted a path to significantly increase our potash production to meet the world’s nutritional needs, and LTE and IoT will allow us to get there,” said Justin Stade, NPK Digital Transformation Director, Nutrien.
Ambra determined that the optimal location for each radio station is at the major underground junctions where the multiple tunnels meet. “The performance results exceeded our expectations,” says Ambra. “For example, the LTE network we deployed supported 21Mbps over 1.3km in tunnels, while Wi-Fi could maintain 8Mbps over just 300m.” LTE provides this coverage at a fraction of the cost of Wi-Fi.”
Not only did Ericsson radios deliver the performance Nutrien needed, she adds, they also build redundancy to provide the flexibility needed to maintain connectivity even if a component fails somewhere in the network. Eric L’Heureux, President and CEO of Ambra Solutions: “In addition, Ericsson makes it easy for us to reconfigure the system if we need to change the topology or expand the network. If there is a need for 5G in the future, Nutrien can just activate the license without replacing the hardware There’s really nothing stopping us from making changes in the LTE network as Nutrien’s needs change.”
“We knew that Ericsson provides carrier-grade equipment in our public LTE segment and that the technology is designed to operate reliably in very harsh conditions. Potash CIO Nutrien, IT, commented Chad Skiba, Another great thing about Ericsson equipment is the ability to build redundancy In the infrastructure, so we have the flexibility to maintain connectivity even if there is a failure of a component somewhere in the network.
Underground workers have readily available communications throughout the mine and with the control room. This makes it possible to transfer data digitally in seconds rather than spending hours for someone to travel to a phone or Wi-Fi hotspot. As a result, Nutrien is able to provide a safer and more efficient work environment while increasing mine production.
For example, the Nutrien mines are filled with kilometers of conveyors bringing mined potash to the surface, as well as vehicles (including a growing number of electric vehicles) and other mining equipment. Workers can now open a manual or standard operating procedure for a piece of equipment on their smartphone. If a problem arises with the device, a person can simply take a smartphone picture and immediately send it to maintenance instead of getting in the car and driving hours to report the problem. And with new mobile applications such as push to talk, voice communication with supervisors or the control room is now instantaneous from anywhere in the mine.
Ambra is now working with the Nutrien team to deploy Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on vehicles, equipment and systems such as ventilation. By combining sensor data, analytics, and machine learning, the company will be able to obtain predictive maintenance information to avoid production downtime and further improve safety, productivity, and environmental quality. Their ultimate goal is to create a truly connected mine where business managers have real-time information to make better decisions, faster, and with more confidence.