Converged Technology takes on ground-penetrating radar

Published: Feb 09, 2023

We’re all intimately familiar with IT – the army of behind-the-scenes experts who keep our technology infrastructure humming and enable our businesses to thrive. But you may not be aware of OT – Operational Technology – the people behind the software and systems at large industrial players that turn pumps on and off and make our machines run.

Historically, these two groups have been completely separate across processing industries, but as part of our Next Generation Potash transformation, Nutrien is ahead of the curve on bringing them together – and that’s opened the door to a range of innovation possibilities.

“The IT side of things is about speed, flexibility and versatility. But OT is all about reliability, speed and safety: it can never break, and it needs to work perfectly every time it is used – because somebody could get hurt if it doesn’t,” explains Justin Stade, Director of Digital Transformation for our Nitrogen, Phosphate and Potash businesses. “We wanted to take some of the game-changing trends and opportunities on the IT side – like data science or computer vision – and apply them into the OT space, without giving up that non-negotiable on reliability. And so, about four years ago, we created the Converged Technology team. Now that team works with our existing CyberSecurity, IT, OT, NextGen and Operations teams to collaboratively bring this idea into the real world.”

At Nutrien, our Information Technology and Digital Transformation Teams are integrated in one department: Information & Digital Solutions (IDS). As part of the IDS group, Converged Technology is helping us transform potash mining on numerous fronts – from autonomous mining to predictive maintenance through projects like BeltVision – and the team is now working on re-writing the book on ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

GPR – a safety success story


In the 2010s, Nutrien helped lead the way on using GPR to identify potential hazardous spots in the ceilings of potash mines in Saskatchewan – and today, GPR devices are fixtures on mining machines across our Saskatoon-area conventional potash mines. When a hazardous zone is identified, we either reinforce it if the area is still being used or close off and abandon the area if access is no longer needed.

That keeps our people safe, and keeps our mines producing says Craig Funk, Director of GeoServices & Land for Nutrien’s Potash business.

“Ground-penetrating radar is an essential part of our multi-faceted approach to protecting our people working at the mining faces,” Craig says. “One thing we won’t compromise on at Nutrien is safety.”

The right time for an upgrade

While the system has served us well over the past decade, advances in internal capabilities both in data science and engineering now provide an open runway for significant improvements in operability, efficiency and reliability in the technology that powers GPR.

“A lot has changed since we first deployed this technology, so it’s time for an upgrade – and now we have a chance to basically start from scratch,” says Craig.

And rather than working with an external vendor to upgrade the system, Nutrien is buying the technology so our Converged Technology team can revamp, update and customize a new one, in-house. That wouldn’t have been possible – let alone popular – in even the recent past, Craig notes.

 “Five years ago, we never would’ve brought IDS in on something like this, but our Converged Technology team brings a lot to the table and has a proven track record,” he says. “Nowadays, our Operations teams are coming to me saying, ‘We've got to get IDS involved, so we can kickstart the process and get the job done well and quickly’ – and that says a lot.”

Off to a strong start

Justin and Craig’s teams are working closely with Operations to write and test the new system, and they expect to have it fully implemented by the fourth quarter of 2023.

“We know how we're going to improve reliability and give the sites more features, and things are off to a strong start,” Justin says. “We’re optimistic this is going to be another game changer.”

Brent Poohkay, Nutrien’s Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, is excited about the project and proud of the multi-team collaboration that’s making it possible.

“Technology touches every part of what Nutrien does – and our work on ground-penetrating radar is a great example of what that looks like,” he says. “We’re as focused on being a technology leader as we are on being an agricultural leader or a mining leader, and it’s gratifying to see our people working together across our business to get the job done.”