Connected forests: Researchers see progress by testing private LTE networks

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A few years ago, it seemed like bringing high-speed internet connectivity to remote parts of the forest was a pipe dream; one that wouldn’t come to fruition for at least another decade.

But this dream will soon become reality. For three years, FPInnovations and its partners have been testing the use of LTE private mobile networks in the forest. Based on the results of the latest trial, which took place in the winter of 2021 in the Williams Lake, British Columbia area, in partnership with Tolko Industries, Tsi Del Del Enterprises and San Jose Logging Ltd., High Speed ​​Internet could be in the forest in the spring.

This will be a massive change from the current information-sharing technology used in remote forests – namely, GEO-based satellite technology and very high frequency (VHF) radios, which are not sufficient to transfer large amounts of data back and forth, says Mithun Shetty, senior researcher for FPInnovations’ Transportation and Infrastructure group.

“The lack of connectivity in the forest prevents the rapid flow of information between the forest and the data center,” says Shetty. “Currently 60% of operations are without cellular coverage, so we can’t use the productivity tracking technology that is used in other sections, like agriculture, in forestry operations.”

Introducing mobile and private LTE networks in the forest will solve these problems, in addition to improving the safety of workers in remote areas, he says.

“Additionally, the work we do can support Indigenous communities in remote areas, forestry workers in remote camps, wildfire agencies and others who are still unconnected and have not no access to high-speed Internet currently,” he adds. “The infrastructure put in place in forestry operations could also be useful in the event of an emergency response or natural disaster when existing telecommunications infrastructure is impacted.”

This project is part of FPInnovations’ larger Forestry 4.0 program, which aims to drive the digital transformation of forestry. Tolko had also worked on a similar project for the past three years with two of their logging contractors: Tsi Del Del First Nation and San Jose Logging.

“These two entrepreneurs are already familiar with telematics devices. They were using the devices to help them with their business, and they were interested in this technology, so it seemed like a good fit,” said Travis Kiel, forest improvement manager at Tolko. CFI.

Tolko then approached FPInnovations to partner on the project, as they “provided in-depth knowledge and additional resources,” Kiel says. San Jose Logging has been incorporated as part of FPInnovations’ Indigenous Forest Sector Technical Support Program.

Far-reaching technology

The companies began testing private LTE network technology in 2020, using a high-speed GEO-based satellite link. More recently, in the winter of 2021, they decided to test an LTE system with a new high-speed satellite link, which has higher data speed and much lower latency, which means shorter delays in sending the signal back and forth, explains Shetty.

For this trial, FPInnovations and Tolko partnered with technology providers to install an LTE base station at the edge of a cutblock. Tolko purchased his own 30-meter portable cell tower, which featured a five-dbi gain omnidirectional antenna on top, along with a tower-mounted amplifier (TMA) to boost signal strength for extended coverage. A satellite link terminal connected the LTE system to the Internet.

A 106ft portable cell tower is erected as part of an active logging operation. Photo courtesy of FPInnovations.

But how exactly does the LTE system work? LTE – long-term evolution – the technology follows the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specifications for communications, which is the standard for providing network coverage for a wide area, Shetty says. In this trial, a cell tower covered a radius of 10 kilometers. Devices within this radius, including cell phones, tablets and telematics, can then communicate with the cell tower even in motion.

For this to happen, “the cell tower’s LTE base station needs a microwave or satellite backhaul that connects the station to the internet,” Shetty explains. “Microwave backhaul does not seem feasible as it requires long distance interconnections. Satellite backhaul is preferred as it improves ease of deployment, skill level required and cost.

As part of the latest trials, San Jose Logging has had its feller bunchers and skidders equipped with FPDats. Operators received 10 phones, connected to the private LTE network, to use during the trial.

Lessons learned

Overall, the trial was quite successful, with carriers able to connect to the network on their devices like a regular phone can surf the internet at 4G speeds, Shetty says. Bandwidth and signal strength allowed for calls, text messages, video streaming, and Internet access.

“With a signal tower, we achieved blind line-of-sight coverage of about ten kilometers and the data download speed was over 10 Mbps, which meets the requirements for advanced connectivity,” Shetty explains. “The tested system was easy to deploy; forestry field personnel could deploy this system with minimal training. And the system is portable, so it requires a small footprint for installation (depending on tower height) and has low power requirements.

Equipment operators and foremen were excited to see the data coming in during the trial, Kiel adds.

“We were able to make phone calls and connect to the Internet where no one really imagined we could without satellite phones, which are inconsistent and unreliable,” he says. “We still have some improvements to implement and we need to make sure contractors see the real benefits of data.”

As part of this trial, the partners used a Voice-over-IP application to place calls, which required a setup that Shetty says might not be preferred for deploying the system in the future.

“One of the takeaways from this track was to have a call feature that uses the native dialer app,” he says. “For this feature, we would need the support of telecom operators, as it could be done with Voice-over-LTE type technology.”

Another challenge was that the signal tower was installed offsite, more than ten kilometers away. While there weren’t any big issues in terms of the logging equipment interacting with the tower, there were some challenges with regards to the topography and the logging equipment coming out. potentially from the tower’s radius and line of sight, Kiel says.

Because the satellite link is fixed in one place, it also meant the system couldn’t move around as easily as logging operations, Shetty says. However, the satellite terminal will soon be mobile, which means that the whole system will be able to move easily.

View of the cut block near the tower.

“Revolution in our industry”

Ultimately, private LTE networks will help the forest industry have connectivity in remote areas, Shetty says.

Going forward, FPInnovations and its partners are evaluating the long-term performance of the LTE system under different weather conditions.

“The system is almost ready; we are just waiting for the satellite link system to be mobile. It should be mobile very soon, so we expect loggers to be able to use the entire system by spring 2022,” he says. “To use the LTE system, they would need access to the frequency, and we also need to make sure that the devices they use are certified.”

“Based on the expertise acquired, as well as the network of partners we have developed, FPInnovations can now help our members assess opportunities related to better connectivity, identify the best combination of technologies and guide the evaluation financial. »

Kiel adds that Tolko is very interested in using the technology once it becomes commercially available, and hopes logging contractors will also see the benefits of the system.

“Most of the new tools and technologies being developed today are more reliable and just better on the LTE network, compared to satellite technology,” he says. “With real-time data, contractors can manage their equipment more efficiently; ordering parts, troubleshooting equipment problems in the field can happen faster, rather than dispatching a mechanic who brought the wrong part, for example. ”

This type of technology “opens the doors to things like automating forestry operations, where advanced high-speed connectivity is a critical component,” Shetty adds.

“Now is the right time to bring a revolution in our industry with advanced connectivity.”

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