“Better than a good day at the office.”

A recent trip to Yukon to install five new seismic monitoring stations showcases Nanometrics’ full-service solutions


Rick Moore has worked for Nanometrics for twenty-some years, installing seismic monitoring networks all over the world. It’s a job the soft-spoken, almost-60-year-old thoroughly enjoys, remarking wryly, “A bad day at sea is better than a good day in the office.”


Although the researchers who purchase our instrumentation are responsible for selecting the sites and performing the install, Nanometrics has always made it clear that we can take care of whatever they’re  not comfortable doing—meaning our field engineers can go along to provide specialized technical expertise. For example, few researchers (or their grad students) have expertise in solar power and satellite installation in remote locales. In other cases, our staff provides seismology customers with on-site training by installing a few stations with them,  so the customer can complete the remaining installs on their own. But our expansion into the oil and gas market, where we provide operators with network design, installation and monitoring, has allowed us to demonstrate our value as a full-service solution provider to all markets that we serve. 


Anyone can buy the equipment. Making it all work together is the trick

Our field engineers are a significant part of what makes us the most trusted seismic monitoring company in the world: From site selection and installation to network maintenance, monitoring and data analysis, our in-house experts have an outstanding track record of addressing all of our customer’s needs and requirements at every step, no matter the scope of the project.


Frank Joris has spent the last two years installing stations for our oil and gas customers. Like Rick, he relishes the opportunity to work outdoors and travel to remote, picturesque places he wouldn’t otherwise get to see. But installing seismic equipment requires much more than a love of travel and the outdoors. You need to be able able to manage field operations and deal with the unexpected while working in remote locales, not to mention the significant planning that must be done well in advance of any on-site operations. The role is very physical, days are long and pressure can be high.  It requires soft skills (talking to clients) as well as the technical skills to troubleshoot when something goes wrong. Not to mention having to meet client expectations, stakeholder expectations, HSE requirements and overcome environmental and logistical challenges.


Frank and Rick put their extensive skills to good use on their recent trips to northern Canada to install five new permanent stations: in  Toad River, YK; Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park, BC;  Nahanni Butte, NT; Kotaneelee air strip, YT and Beaver River air strip, YT. The Yukon Geological Survey and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) purchased the equipment and researcher Mike Schmidt of the Kluane Lake Research Station of the Arctic Institute of North America selected the sites and led the install, with Frank and Rick providing their unique expertise. The new stations will improve the resolution of coverage in the area and provide a baseline of the area’s natural level of seismicity.


Map of new permanent stations
Nanometrics installed five new permanent seismic monitoring stations 
for the Yukon Geological Survey and NRCan.


Broadband seismic station
Nanometrics’ state-of-the-art direct burial broadband seismic stations include Trillium Compact Posthole Seismometers and Centaur Digital Recorders. Each site optionally includes a solar power system and cellular communications equipment, to facilitate autonomous operation and gather data in real time. 



Choosing the install sites is of prime importance

When providing a complete end-to-end solution, the work actually starts long before the field operations begin. And the work goes well beyond the obvious booking  of flights, hotels and rental vehicles, particularly when we’re responsible for network design and site selection. We need to make sure we have all instrumentation, tools and other items that need to be on hand in the field during operations. Depending on the nature of the project, qualified subcontractors must be  identified. A local secure facility for storing equipment is often required, as is a staging area for set up. A pre-job hazard assessment is completed and a site-specific emergency response plan created. 


Determining where the stations will be installed is key. Knowing what performance requirements a customer has as well as general knowledge of the area, we model an idealized network for the initial proposal. At this point, the stations are just "dots on a map,"' with little or no consideration for how suitable the sites actually are. 


Sites are evaluated based on five criteria:

  • Accessibility (accessible year-round with a 4WD vehicle)
  • Solar exposure (unobstructed 180° view of the equator-facing horizon)
  • Telemetry (sufficient cell signal or clear line-of-sight for satellite)
  • Site noise (as far as possible from industrial facilities, highways, etc.)
  • Permitting (minimum permitting requirements to reduce overall project cost and timeline to completion)


Viable sites are the ones which balance these criteria with estimated installation and operational costs and the overall performance requirements of the network.


Accessibility. Once the contract is signed, preliminary assessments of the “dots” are done via a table-top analysis of satellite or aerial imagery, land survey mapping data and cellular coverage maps. These table-top surveys can predict the general feasibility of a network, but there’s no substitute for a physical site survey. Conditions in the field, particularly in remote areas, can change quickly: new roads and infrastructure are constructed, while others that appear to be available are overgrown or abandoned. On-site assessment also allows for direct measurement of cell signal strength, line-of-sight angles, collection of site noise samples and the beginning of engagement with local stakeholders.


Solar exposure, telemetry and site noise. In remote, northern areas,  site noise isn’t much of a concern, given the limited development in the area. Getting the proper “look angle” for satellite, on the other hand, can be difficult because of the trees and mountains. Before Frank left for Yukon, YGS provided site surveys that included the access,  vegetation, availability of drinking water, sources of power, photos of each site as well as information on line of sight. Mike Schmidt took pictures of the site with his phone, and used an app that calculates the angle of the horizon, to ensure it was sufficient. 


Permitting. Permits, on the other hand, can be a complication for any installation. Installing stations for oil and gas operators on their own land holdings makes things easier, but permits are required for the use of provincial, federally or privately owned land. Nanometrics will make initial contact with the landowners, and then a subcontracted land agent who’s licensed to negotiate agreements with landholders will obtain all the necessary permits, including permits to access to the site and crossing or proximity agreements for ground disturbances or other activities close to pipelines, roads or any buried utilities. 


Landowners are paid per square metre of land used for the station. The station footprint is minimal, with a hole only 2’ to 4’ deep and 8” diameter. The single equipment enclosure can rest on the ground, and depending on access to power/cell signal, a short mast is deployed for a solar panel and/or cellular antenna, or these can also be mounted directly on the enclosure. A fence is put up around the station, with the landowner's’ permission. Stations can generally be installed in a few hours, and typically require little to no access for routine maintenance during operation. Although private landowners rarely object, sometimes permitting is pursued for more locations than are planned for installation to mitigate risk of delays which could be caused by permitting failing for one or more sites.


River landscape taken in Rancheria Falls
When asked what he likes best about his job, Frank responds by sending this picture,
 taken in Rancheria Falls, just off the Alaska Highway


When asked about challenges with permitting, Rick mentions the Northwest Staging Route. This series of airstrips, airport and radio ranging stations were built in Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska during World War II. These areas, along with their associated access roads, now provide preferred locations for seismic stations as this land is still federally owned, and permits are typically easier to obtain. 


And no matter where the site is installed, theft is always a concern. The batteries, solar panels and in one case, even the fencing around a station (meant more to keep out wild animals than prevent theft) has been stolen. One customer requested the solar panel and mount be secured with a heavy chain and lock, and other seismology installs have been enclosed with a 7-foot chain-link fence with a locked gate and topped with barbed wire. Robert describes that in the Philippines and El Salvador, sites are often selected so that there is informal monitoring of the station, either by nearby schools, farms or other infrastructure that’s constantly manned.


“If you don’t test it, it’s not going to work”

Frank spent the first few days in Yukon preparing and testing the equipment that had been shipped. Every instrument is tested before all seismic equipment, tools and parts are shipped directly to a secure storage facility near the site. It’s very important that the technicians have planned carefully and have any and all tools and parts they may need, as there is usually no opportunity to replace something by running out  to the local hardware store. And flying out to get something is either impossible or prohibitively expensive. 


Since seismology customers have purchased the equipment and are in charge of the installation even if our staff are present, spare parts are rarely purchased and brought to the sites, so having quick-thinking Nanometrics experts on site is particularly valuable.  When installing  a remote station in Kazakhstan, a single nut for the satellite went missing. Field engineer Robert Statham was able to find a similar piece, which held up until the customers went back to replace it a few months later.  


During the Liard install, the feed horn for the satellite was missing, but fortunately there was a spare. For heavy and/or expensive parts, however, it’s not possible to bring spares, but contingency plans must be made for those, too. On this install, a sensor for one of Frank’s stations was damaged in shipping and couldn’t level once in the field.  But careful planning meant that one had been ordered before leaving Ottawa and was manufactured in time to for Rick to carry it up with him (because of HSE rules, one employee cannot work too many days in a row, so Frank and Rick each spent 12 days there to avoid any delays in installation).  Once the installations are complete, all tools, spare parts, are shipped back via commercial shipping service.


Every install is challenging, but for different reasons

The site at the  Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park in BC was only 80m from the highway, and next to an open area where highway equipment was being kept. And it being tourist season in Yukon, the highway was busy with RVs and motorcycles. The open site was however, optimal in terms of solar and satellite access. Although it can be noisier, proximity to development means access to A/C power supply and cell coverage (meaning no need for satellite), as was the case for the Toad River site. It  was near a community centre, a school and storage buildings, and dogs kept running over the buried sensor as they ran to meet the children coming out of the school.


Typically a site takes two days to install with two people, but since Frank and Mike were joined by PhD student Anton Biryukov, a geological field assistant with YGS and former Nanometrics employee, the Toad and Liard installs were finished ahead of schedule.


Turbo Otter airplane
A 1954 Turbo Otter flew Rick, YGS staff  and all equipment to the three fly-in sites


The three sites that Rick was responsible for were all fly-in, which fortunately isn’t a common occurrence for installs. In addition to the obvious additional expense, fly-in sites require more planning. All equipment and packaging must be carefully weighed, and overall weight limits for equipment, staff and personal effects are strictly enforced. This is complicated by the fact that weight limits depend on the type of plane, and without knowing ahead of time what plane is available, it’s hard to figure out how many trips will be needed. 


In this case, the plane was a 1954 Turbo Otter with a weight limit of 3,000 lbs,  owned by Alkan Air in Whitehorse.  After commenting on the age of the airplane (although it had a brand-new engine), Rick jokes that the team for these fly-in sites were four men just as old as the plane: Rick, its pilot, Hugh Kitchen, Craig Nicholson of YGS and Schmidt. 


Having us on site is like a form of insurance

“Things are much less likely to go wrong if we’re on site,” says Robert. “If they do go wrong, we can fix them. And we can advise against doing anything that would effectively void the warranty on their instrumentation.”


The most important aspect of managing field operations is ensuring that they are conducted in a safe manner, in compliance with all applicable health, safety and environment (HSE) policies. All of our field engineers have a raft of HSE certifications, with the specifics of the job defining which are required. For example, at the Kotaneelee site H2S gas was a concern because of its proximity to a gas plant. In addition to H2S monitors, Rick is H2S Alive certified. 


Typically, the greatest hazard faced on an install is the travel to and from work locations. Remote job sites can require significant amounts of driving on roads with poor driving conditions and high risk of wildlife crossing. Steps to minimize this risk include defensive driving training, advance route planning, safety check-ins, vehicle safety kits and fatigue management, but accidents can happen. Robert was in a minor car accident in Indonesia, where the driver of his car veered into a deep roadside ditch designed for monsoon rains. In the backseat with his seatbelt fastened, he was unhurt. 


Detailed Hazard Assessments are conducted for each operation and specific emergency response plans are created. Besides vehicle accidents and dangerous road conditions, other potential hazards include toxic plants, battery explosion, electric shocks, falls, forest fires, hydrogen sulfide gas, overhead wires, power tools, muscle strain, cold or hot conditions—and dangerous animals. 


When the plane lands at each install site, the first priority is to prep the bear bangers and take off the trigger guard and load the shotgun. Common sense measures—like not sticking your hand anywhere you can’t see and a constant awareness of your surroundings—apply on any install. The danger, however, is even greater when working alone. Rick recounted being being warned of a pack of wolves in the area before heading out for a solo install, when the temperature was below -25C.  Again, with common sense measures of backing into the site, with the truck running and one door always open, he managed to mitigate the cold and never saw any of the wolves.


In addition to bears, our employees have come across snakes, bison and bulls (and were warned about packs of destructive monkeys in Ghana, who luckily stayed away from the install).


 “I’m most worried about bulls. I’ve been charged by bulls in Alberta and Texas," says Andrew Moores, senior sales manager, who’s accompanied Robert on a few installs.  “Thankfully they can’t climb trees. I can.”