Russia's critical comms sector

Russia’s critical communications market is still moving from analogue to digital, and the country’s oil and gas sector is embracing the use of drones. Barry Mansfield takes a look at the state of play

Despite the promise of new technologies and the complexities they pose, TETRA itself still enjoys a strong reputation in the critical communications market in Russia and surrounding states. One reason is the country’s vast territory, which means the context around any discussion of mission-critical broadband is markedly different from that in its smaller, more densely populated peers.

Although parts of Russia have had LTE for some years now (Novosibirsk in Siberia was the unlikely proving ground for Megafon’s introduction of 4G services back in April 2012), many regions still lack LTE coverage and much of the focus in the country’s critical communications sector is on the migration from analogue radio systems to digital. In addition, wide-scale 5G deployments aren’t expected in Russia until the early 2020s.

With a view to a full commercial 5G launch in 2022, Megafon has concentrated mostly on applications within healthcare and transport. In June, Huawei agreed with Russian operator MTS to develop its 5G network; this news came as the Chinese telecoms giant was effectively blacklisted by the US Commerce Department. Our scene set, it’s worth noting that TETRA’s appeal in the region was recently evidenced by Motorola Solutions’ 2018 deal to expand a TETRA network in Georgia.

Back in Russia, another TETRA success story is the 250-mile Yekaterinburg railway line, which uses a train application server to allow staff to use train numbers as addresses instead of traditional telephone numbers. A direct line between the two exchanges ensures the robustness of the system in the event of a communications line failing; an Advanced Configuration and Power Interface (ACAPI) allows highly customisable applications to be added to the radio system.

Besides TETRA, Russia is able to draw upon some powerful standalone solutions, including its renowned GLONASS precision navigation satellite system – which already allows police, fire and rescue teams to pinpoint mobile users’ exact locations. More recently this has been used to operate an emergency call system called ERA-GLONASS (the Russian equivalent of eCall) in partnership with Japanese firm Denso Ten; it automatically dials an emergency number after an accident, notifying the control room of the vehicle identification number (VIN) and location, while enabling two-way communication.

In Moscow, a local network from Leonardo (formerly Selex Communications) has been used by public safety and local government services. This demonstrates another of TETRA’s strengths – interoperability between manufacturers’ products. In some regions, terminals from four manufacturers – Cleartone, Airbus SLC, Motorola Solutions and Sepura – are all in use on the same network.

Other recent projects include a pilot for Russian Railways by Tele2 and Nokia to enable real-time video-streaming at Luzhskaya station in the Leningrad region – a technology that paves the way for the remote operation of locomotives. Radio Tel Saint Petersburg is set to roll out its successful TETRA system in more Russian cities (it currently boasts a 99.9 per cent call success rate on its 70-agency-strong trunking network spanning police, utilities, power plants and more), having already secured licences for Krasnodar, Tatarstan, Nizhni Novgorod and the Primorye territory.

TETRA is used by Moscow’s public safety services

Move to mission-critical
Jaakko Etelaaho, a manager at Secure Land Communications (SLC), a subsidiary of Belgium-headquartered Airbus, estimates that more than half of critical communications end-users in Russia are still using analogue. Airbus, whose top customer in Russia is Transneft (the nation’s largest oil transportation company), has installed 700 TB3 TETRA base stations to cover a number of oil pipelines, with the largest network covering the East Siberia (Pacific Ocean) pipeline at a length of approximately 6,000km.

In its most recent project with partner T-Helper, Airbus is extending the TETRA network of one of the biggest oil production companies in Russia, Surgutneftegas. Supporting 5,000 users near the Ob River in the northern part of Western Siberia, Airbus’s TETRA system is used to transmit data between the control room, remotely operated network units and a SCADA system. The objective is to monitor and identify incidents, while avoiding the expense and inefficiency of having to dispatch staff to remote areas. Radio coverage spans the city of Surgut, the oil and gas fields and the pipeline. Airbus recently added an extra 45 new TB3 base stations.

Etelaaho notes that mission-critical push-to-talk (MCPTT) functionality “is gradually becoming more and more popular. We have noticed that some of the local mobile network operators (MNOs) have been considering offering this kind of solution in big Russian cities as a step towards them becoming smart and safe cities.” There is concern, however, around poor or nonexistent 4G coverage: “This is especially the case in the regions and rural areas where our main oil and gas customers are active.”

Airbus is aiming to offer a solution in the form of its Tactilon Agnet application and Tactilon Dabat TETRA/LTE handheld terminal. The company has registered a gradually worsening business risk in Russia for foreign critical communications providers as a result of EU and US sanctions, in addition to the Russian import replacement policy. But Etelaaho remains optimistic: “The need for modern communication systems is still present and growing,” he says. “The digitalisation of the analogue systems is getting more evident and with MCPTT solutions we see the user base expanding to new sectors.”

Up in the air
In a country with a vast amount of critical oil and gas infrastructure in remote locations, it is perhaps unsurprising that drones are becoming attractive as a way to easily assess and monitor the condition of key assets.

This last year has seen the clever use of drones to monitor a 485km-long pipeline leading to Eastern Messoyakha, Russia’s northernmost oil field. Russian oil company Messoyakhaneftegaz has been testing photo and video coverage, as well as 3D visualisation, with the objective of improving security, environmental controls and economic efficiency for the local oil and condensate industry. Company representative Pavel Zakurdayev says the accuracy of the drone technology in locating and assessing damaged equipment has undergone extensive testing. This joint venture of Rosneft and Gazprom-Neft is expected to expand to West Messoyakha soon.

The versatility of drone technology is particularly convincing in the Russian Arctic, as the region is under pressure from constantly changing environmental conditions. These shifting conditions are potentially catastrophic in the worst-affected areas, according to the state agency for meteorology and environmental monitoring. All types of infrastructure – from roads and pipelines to buildings and industrial plants – are at risk of failure as the ground’s ability to withstand the necessary weight is reduced and a sequence of destructive weather events takes its toll. However, since they are accustomed to working in such a harsh environment, prospective clients in the oil and gas sector are concerned not only with connectivity but with business continuity and maintenance issues.

That is why Leonid Plekhanov, chief executive of Global Energy Transmission (GET), has developed a wireless mid-flight recharging station enabling continuous operation for commercial-grade drones. Plekhanov is a great believer in the use of drone technology for the monitoring of power lines, pipelines, energy infrastructure and power plants, as well as security for power plants and airports, and for oil field inspections, power plant inspection and gas leakage detection. Any use of drones with infrared or thermal cameras attached can now be “optimised and scaled up” thanks to this new recharging equipment, he says.

With GET’s wireless technology, the hover area for drone recharging over the station is usually between three and 10 metres. There is no need for any human intervention, which Plekhanov hopes will ease staffing and recruitment issues in remote locations. GET opted for an all-weather transmission, since plug-in systems traditionally struggled in the presence of rain, snow and dust. A drone can be recharged to full power within six minutes, which is typically faster than landing a device and taking off again.

GET’s system can use any power source – but Plekhanov recommends 15kW to operate at full power level. From the power management generator, the power is transmitted using an antenna, establishing a sort of magnetic field that the drone is manoeuvred into. The company is now waiting to secure a commercial electricity licence in the US to sell its system commercially there. It was given a temporary licence by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last December to carry out trials.

The prospect for UAVs in the Arctic has already attracted defence manufacturer Kalashnikov, which recently developed two patrol drones to survey the waters along the Northern Sea Route (NSR), mostly in close proximity to oil and gas installations. These machines are derived from the Zala Aero drones and adapted for extremely low temperatures and high-wind conditions. Russia’s Foundation for Advanced Research Projects, which is focused on the development of emerging military technologies, is building a UAV intended for use in the Arctic and capable of staying in the air for four days.

Russia’s vessels are designed to navigate without the use of global satellite-based navigation systems, as these are notoriously unreliable in the polar region. On that basis the drones use a newly developed technology, named GIRSAM, in the absence of GLONASS and GPS signals. The drones are capable of identifying and gathering information about ships up to 100km away (surpassing the operational range of ground-based equipment) and their primary function will be to ensure the safety of sea shipping and uninterrupted defence of the perimeter, according to Kalashnikov Group CEO Vladimir Dmitriyev.

The drones can be used to relay information about ice conditions, a feature likely to become increasingly valuable as shipping along the route continues to grow rapidly. The developments follow a pattern of upgrading and reopening of Russian security installations across the Arctic along the NSR. In 2017, Russia established its Trefoil military base on the Franz Josef Land archipelago, and by January this year had nearly completed its new Northern Fleet base close to Tiksi in the Laptev Sea. Drones are easily managed from a permanent facility such as this, but can also be operated from customised all-weather modules based on six-metre-long shipping containers.

The development of such systems will be of critical importance for operation in the Arctic as the Russian Federation continues to expand its submarine fleet (six new vessels will become active in 2020, the most in a single year since the collapse of the Soviet Union). In addition, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUV) could be set for the waters of the Arctic Ocean. Rob Huebert, associate professor at the University of Calgary and a senior research fellow with the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, reckons AUVs will become an important issue in the region as the Chinese also look to design and deploy submarines of their own with an under-the-ice capability.

Carving out a niche
A limiting factor for the Russian critical communications market is that LTE networks need frequency spectrum, which is scarce, and LTE equipment is relatively expensive. In addition, the integration of features needed by the critical communications industry into commercial LTE equipment (for example, multipoint communication and priority calls) is moving slowly. TCCA Board chair Mladen Vratonjić says TETRA could see full decommissioning by around 2030, but many of his peers disagree.

MarketsandMarkets estimates worldwide critical communications to be worth $14bn today, projected to reach $20bn by 2024. One of the smaller firms looking to tap into that market – and often found pitching to Russian customers – is Mentura Group, which has been selling its TETRA-based Role Oriented Communications Server (ROCS) as a solution for airports with the aim of smoothly integrating field functions, task dispatching and staff reachability (reducing costs by minimising unnecessary delays in aircraft turnaround). Inevitably, this tough market continues to be dominated by international giants such as Ericsson, Siemens, Cisco Systems, Avanti and Honeywell.

The work of GET and Airbus’s partners in particular demonstrate how smaller vendors and resellers (VARs) can benefit by concentrating on delivery methods in extreme climatic conditions or difficult geography – as well as targeting second- or third-tier Russian cities as the 5G era approaches. Critical communications can also be conducted via private LTE networks (MS-SpetsTelecom used to work on TETRA only but has reinvented itself as an MVNO based on Tele2’s LTE-450 network, offering converged services). Mentura’s managing director, Sami Honkaniemi, thinks the importance of voice gives TETRA lasting appeal, even if some customers seek to add broadband for video-streaming.

One outcome is certain, though – that Russia’s critical communications market is set to become far more sophisticated in the near future, and there will be plenty of contracts up
for negotiation.