Overcoming physical and technical challenges to deliver the world’s first underground private 4G LTE network for the agricultural industry.
For many people, using a public LTE network with their smartphones is commonplace. That’s because there are relatively few physical impediments to transmitting signals from one radio tower to another across the open landscape. However, using wireless technology underground is much more challenging. That’s why Nutrien, a leading producer of fertilizers, turned to Ambra Solutions.
Nutrien operates some of the largest potash mines in the world—potash being a core ingredient in most modern fertilizers. However, they had limited voice and data communication capabilities in the mines, which can be 1,000 meters below the earth’s surface. In fact, their legacy communication systems consisted of only an outdated analog phone system and a few Wi-Fi hot spots. Getting important operational and maintenance information from the mine face to the control room required someone to travel underground to the nearest Wi-Fi access point, which could take hours. Or they would have to physically carry relevant pages copied from a paper logbook to the control room.
To address these limitations, Ambra proposed a private 4G LTE wireless network leveraging Ericsson radio technology. While such a solution had never been done before in the agribusiness industry, we were able to leverage our experience in other types of mines to design and deploy a viable solution for Nutrien.
We worked with the Nutrien team to analyze the tunnel conditions and communication requirements, then conducted extensive testing to determine the best approach. The consistency of potash and the shape of the tunnels were the two main challenges since, unlike other types of mines, the tunnels in potash mines are low and wide and the rock is very soft. It is very difficult to propagate a radio signal in a low-ceilinged tunnel made of soft rock like potash. To add to the challenge, electricity was only available at the tunnel intersections and in certain areas of the mine. So we had to experiment in the field and use our propagation model to find the best locations for the radio antennas.
After extensive testing, we determined the optimal location for each radio base station at key underground intersections where multiple tunnels meet. The performance results exceeded our expectations. For example, the LTE network we deployed supported 21 Mbps over 1.3 kilometers in the tunnels, whereas Wi-Fi could only maintain 8 Mbps over about 300 meters. Moreover, LTE provides this coverage at a fraction of the cost of Wi-Fi.
A resilient network
Not only did the Ericsson radios deliver the performance Nutrien needed, they also build in redundancy to provide resiliency for maintaining communication even if there is a component failure somewhere in the network. Additionally, Ericsson makes it very easy for us to reconfigure the system if we need to change the topology or expand the network. If 5G is needed in the future, Nutrien can just activate the license without replacing hardware. There’s really nothing that prevents us from making changes in the LTE network as Nutrien’s needs change.
Now, underground workers have readily available communication throughout the mine and with the control room. This makes it possible to digitally transmit data in seconds instead of taking hours for someone to travel to a phone or Wi-Fi hot spot. As a result, Nutrien is able to provide a safer, more efficient working environment while driving higher mine production.
Ambra is now working with the Nutrien team to deploy Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on vehicles, equipment, and systems like ventilation. Combining sensor data with analytics and machine learning, the company will be able to get predictive maintenance intelligence 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. Ambra is committed to helping Nutrien meet that goal and support their ongoing communication needs as the company continues to grow and evolve.