Mobile Technology And The Pipeline Sector

July 2012, Vol. 239 No. 7

Matt Sheehan

There are striking similarities between the pre-dot com period and today’s growing use of mobile technology. That is not to suggest now is the time to contemplate a new stock market boom. It is just that today’s mobile technology resembles what was then the Internet – much discussed, used en-masse by consumers and watched but yet to be widely adopted by business. In this article we discuss mobile: demystify it and look at current practices in the pipeline sector and how mobile can potential improve process and efficiency.

Mobile Demystified
There remains much confusion around mobile. A turf war is being waged between rival hardware and software companies with new mobile devices regularly released and apps launched. Smartphones are now owned by over 50% of mobile phone owners, with tablets – like the iPad – becoming ever more popular. Last month’s HP announcement of an 8% staff cut was directly attributed to the growing tablet market. Disagreements continue over software. Last year’s spat between Adobe and Apple over the Flash player, being but one notable example.

But slowly the dust is clearing. For platforms; Android and Apple are increasingly more popular, with Blackberry and Windows some way behind.

Many organizations have staff who own mobile devices. Often it is a mix of Apple and Android products. When thinking about developing a mobile app targeted at these workers, from a software perspective, there are a number of options. First build a mobile web application. These apps are similar to those running on a PC. Accessed from a mobile browser, they are simplified, modified versions of traditional web pages or applications. Second build an installed mobile app.

These are the apps you can find in the Apple App Store and Android Market. Two types of installed apps can be built; native and hybrid. Native apps are those built in the language supported by the platform. So Objective C for Apple, Java for Android. Native apps are fast and are able to access all functional elements available on that platform. Native apps are those written in languages such as HTML5 and converted to something which runs on the specific platform. Performance is not quite equal to native, and there is a lag before new platform additions (rear facing cameras for example) are available for inclusion in an app.

So what determines whether a mobile web, installed native or hybrid app is best? All depends on the type of mobile app which needs building, budget available and required functionality. Simple apps are well-suited for the mobile web – viewing maps, discovering who or what is nearby and getting directions. But what if the app needs to work with no wi-fi access, or requires access to the camera on the device? An installed app, then, is required. But, should we go the native or hybrid route?

Let’s look at two apps. The first is only targeted at Apple’s iPad. App performance is a key concern and we need access to a new feature available on the iPad. A native app makes sense in this case. The second app needs to be cross platform, meaning we have a mix of devices used by our workforce, and we want to make the app available to all. Our budget is limited so one code base which runs across all devices would be ideal. The app uses a number of the mobile devices standard features, nothing unique. A hybrid app would work well given this requirement.

Choice of web, native or hybrid is an important technical discussion. A nice element about web apps is that, if written in HTML5, they can be converted to hybrid apps easily using technologies like PhoneGap. Hybrid offers the possibility of building one application which runs on all platforms. But every mobile app needs careful thought before choosing the most appropriate development path.

Pen, Paper And Rugged Devices
Modern mobile technology has yet to be widely adopted in the pipeline sector. Pen, paper and rugged devices remain the most common tools used in the field.
Pen and paper are popular for both locating features, and recording data. Often a combination is deployed consisting of a paper map, a notepad, and a digital camera. Collected data is either manually input into the central computer system, or stored in a non-digital form. Retrieving this data at a later date, particularly in the latter case, is often challenging. Data accuracy can also be problematic.

Historically, the mobile market was dominated by the likes of Trimble and Garmin; providing ruggedized, highly accurate, expensive hardware. ESRI and CartoPac supply some of the more popular mobile software packages used on these devices. For specific needs, these rugged solutions have proved invaluable. But there are some distinct disadvantages including:
1. Expense – Top end devices can cost in excess of $5,000. This is a prohibitive price tag for many organizations.
2. Platform – Many rugged devices run mobile versions of Windows. These operating systems are older and often do not integrate with other systems: VPN, for example. They are slow in booting, and many have argued they are less than ideal for mobile, particularly when compared to Apples iOS and Android.
3. Challenging workflows – Mobile apps running on these rugged devices tend to be canned applications. Meaning they are a Swiss army knife of functionality. The apps try to be everything to everybody. Often workflows are complex. Staff needs to be trained in their use. Should a company need custom workflows, adding this functionality can be time-consuming and expensive.

The new generation of mobile devices is inexpensive, runs operating systems designed from the ground up for mobile, and allows for the installation of lightweight, inexpensive, custom apps built to provide specific workflows. We are moving toward a world where these devices are ubiquitous. Many field workers now have mobiles in their pockets. We are now able to provide them tools on these devices to help them with their daily tasks.

There are two concerns often raised with regard to these new mobile devices. First is accuracy and second is ruggedness. Currently, a mobile user can expect around 20 feet accuracy from GPS signals on most of the newer mobile devices. If work is being conducted which requires sub meter accuracy, this can be a problem. New solutions have recently been introduced, particularly for those using the Android platform, which provide higher accuracy GPS which should help overcome this issue. Often, high accuracy is not a concern; users may simply want to locate a valve near their current location. Perhaps a bigger challenge is that the data being used on the device may itself be spatially inaccurate.

The release of rugged cases had helped overcome the fragile nature of many of the new mobile devices. Rubberized and waterproof, a typical iPad rugged case costs around $80.

Mobile Technology
The pipeline industry is undergoing change. With the Deepwater Horizon accident and San Bruno pipeline explosion, greater regulation is now in place. This demands more frequent and greater volumes of data collection. A set of processes needs be in place to ensure pipes are in good working order. Audits are done against these processes and the data collected, so records need to be complete (without gaps), easily accessed and accurate. More frequent pipe tests need to be run, looking for corrosion etc. If issues are found, records of what was found and how issues were resolved are critical. High consequence areas such as neighborhoods, built around pipes, are locations of particular focus.
Another pipeline trend is the reduction in workers per facility. There is greater pressure on fewer staff to maintain operations. Summarizing some of the advantages of mobile technology:
1. Data collection – Improved accuracy using a single device with multiple media data collection options (text, images, video, and voice).
2. Centralized storage – The ability to upload data directly from a device and store it centrally on a company server. With easily accessed, searchable databases containing complete records, future regulatory audits will be considerable easier.
3. Simplified workflows – Cheap to build, simple to use, easy to train employees on usage.
4. Customizing and extending apps – Beyond old style canned mobile popular on rugged devices. The new breed of mobile apps can be built and extended based on changing requirements.
5. Cost savings – Hardware and software.
6. Accuracy improvements – GPS and timestamp.

Mobile Location Technology
Location is often a key component in many mobile apps. Using GPS, current location can be determined, allowing spatial tools to be used. Geographic Information Systems (GPS) allow advanced location focused functionality to be utilized:
1. Visualization – Using interactive maps which include base maps and feature layers of interest, users can view information about assets nearby their current location.
2. Data collection and editing – Updating the attributes of specific features, and adding new features to a dataset is made considerably easier with mobile.
3. Search and discovery – From simple queries based on a features attribute: show me all pipes laid before a specific date in an area. To more advanced discovery: which valves need to be closed to stop the flow of oil or gas to this particular break in the pipe?
4. Collaboration and sharing – Not only can field data be uploaded and shared quickly using mobiles, but field workers can use the communication tools available on smartphones to collaborate.
5. Organization and coordination – Managers can track the location of field workers, and help coordinate projects.

The new mobile technology offers the potential to dramatically improve efficiency in the pipeline sector. This should translate directly to considerable cost savings. But there remain challenges in implementing mobile solutions. Maybe the biggest is demonstrating value to senior executives. If the choice is between spending money on laying new pipe or introducing modern mobile technology, the former will always win. Demonstrating the effectiveness of mobile technology, and comparing it with current practices is one effective approach. Simple demos of this new technology, using real workflows, should help move the discussion forward.

Matt Sheehan
is a Principal at WebMapSolutions which specializes in mobile application development, particularly using location technology such as GIS and location-based services (LBS). He can be reached at