CBRS private LTE networks help keep oilfield workers safe

PK Solutions uses private LTE networks in publicly available CBRS spectrum. (weavix.com)(PK Systems)

In the oil and gas industry, an important step in refining petroleum is fractional distillation, which takes place in tall towers that separate liquids by allowing vapors to rise and condense. When workers need to inspect or repair the inside of a fractioning tower, they face a host of dangers, including heat, confinement and of course elevation. It's an ideal use case for biometric monitors that allow companies to track both the location and the vital signs of workers. And biometric monitors, worn inside towers on a sprawling job site, are an ideal use case for private LTE, according to device-maker PK Solutions.

“Private LTE is fantastic because we can arrive at an oil and gas company’s job site, put up temporary towers, and control bandwidth and who’s using it — all while harnessing the same technology that the carriers use,” said PK Solutions CTO Ben Burrus, in a case study.

PK Solutions makes wearable devices for workers, and it makes software that its customers use to track employees and optimize their efficiency. To connect the devices at oil refineries, the company uses Nokia’s industrial-grade private wireless solution and Cradlepoint’s NetCloud service, delivered through wireless edge routers mounted in ruggedized kits. The company's investment in private LTE allows it to market its solution to customers with added safety assurances. 

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“When you’ve got workers inside confined spaces, needing connectivity with their lives at stake, Wi-Fi just doesn’t get the job done,” said Justin Nickel, director of marketing at PK Companies. Wi-Fi signals cannot always penetrate the tower walls, and the company said the proportions of some towers make the performance of a Wi-Fi LAN inconsistent.

Public cellular networks were also unable to provide the service guarantees PK Solutions was looking for. The company said that even though LTE coverage is usually excellent, public networks can struggle to meet the needs of industrial deployments where robust performance with low latency and coverage is critical. When the company creates a private LTE network, it can monitor and control performance, and prioritize service for mission critical devices.

"With private LTE, you can say, ‘Here’s my group of devices that need top priority. If there are bandwidth congestion issues, shut these other devices off so safety professionals’ devices always work,’” said Burrus.

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PK Solutions tried using both Wi-Fi and public LTE before deciding to go with private LTE networks using publicly available CBRS spectrum. The company chose Nokia's cloud-based private wireless as-a-service solution, and says it uses a variety of radios along with a locally deployed edge cloud server at the job site. The edge cloud server runs the core network to enable low-latency applications and local breakout. Network managers can access a cloud-based graphical user interface through a web browser.

Cradlepoint’s purpose-built wireless edge routers provide CBRS connectivity outside the towers. They are housed in ruggedized communication kits that include a battery and a monitor that collects and streams gas readings and video footage to safety officers in real time. Cradlepoint's cloud-based solution also provides visibility into LTE conditions and network configurations.

The oilfield workers carry PK Solutions' devices configured with SIM cards that support CBRS. The devices are integrated with PK Solutions’ digital inspection software and its workforce optimization software called weavix. The CBRS network also supports video cameras and sensors.

Now PK Solutions and its customers are considering other connected IoT devices and applications that could leverage the private LTE networks, such as continuous video monitoring, intercoms, and applications to collect and analyze data. 

“Our R&D team is saying, ‘Now that we have a high-bandwidth network set up, what else can we do?’" said Burrus. "The sky is the limit with this private LTE solution.”

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