NYSEARCH’s Formula For Technology Transfer, Commercialization Of Robotic Products

June 2013, Vol. 240, No. 6

The regulated gas industry conducts research & development (R&D) at a relatively lower level than other unregulated industries and really needs to capitalize on those projects in which benefits are realized.

Because R&D is characterized by technical and business risk, a typical portfolio of R&D projects results in some successes and some failures. In the case to be discussed, R&D investment and the committed champions of a cohesive R&D robotics program have achieved a positive impact on industry and overall safety. After many years of R&D investment and in-kind support by its members and collaborators, NYSEARCH can report on a series of pipeline inspection products that have been successfully transferred and commercialized through a licensee, Invodane Engineering, and its service company, Pipetel Technologies Inc., under the commercial name Explorer.

Many years and technical experts, numerous milestones and complicated contracts were necessary to gain commercial success. Most importantly, the companies that funded this effort through NYSEARCH made the critical difference, driving technical decisions and testing the developed technologies.

The Explorer program, which consists of several projects for different ranges of pipe sizes – EXP 6/8, EXP 10/14, EXP 20/26, EXP 30/36 and EXP 16/18 (the two numbers define the range of pipe diameters that the specific platform can inspect) – was driven by a vision of what was technically possible in dense urban and suburban areas where pipelines have various geometric and systematic constraints. Operators from the funding companies have worked together with NYSEARCH staff, contractors and Invodane to overcome the challenges of fully inspecting LDC-owned transmission pipe, reaching beyond the conventional straight transmission pipe to address inspection of the unpiggable.

The specific challenges LDCs face with “unpiggable” pipe within service territories include back-to-back bends, constricting plug valves, vertical climbs, mitered bends, low flow and other constraints for pig-launching. Further, the environments in which many of these pipes are located are not conducive for pipe replacement or upgrade.

The companies that supported this challenging and complicated R&D program include: Central Hudson Gas & Electric (CHG&E), Con Edison, National Fuel, National Grid and its predecessor companies (Keyspan, Long Island Lighting Company, Niagara Mohawk Power Corp.), New York State Electric & Gas, Orange & Rockland Utilities, Pacific Gas & Electric, PECO Energy, Public Service Electric & Gas, Questar, Rochester Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas. Important funding support was also provided by PHMSA/DOT, Operations Technology Development (OTD) and the Canadian government. In particular, based on NYSEARCH’s successful bids for contracts under competitive solicitations, PHMSA was unwavering over an eight-year period in providing collaborative R&D funding and management support.

In addition, successful technology transfer requires patience in supporting the transition from pre-commercial prototypes to field-hardened tools. During this critical stage, in-kind support in the form of additional live-testing was provided by many of the funders, as well as Enbridge Gas Distribution and SouthWest Gas Corp. Those testing the Explorer as an R&D tool in live lines took additional risks but showed themselves as champions and early adopters. In addition to Enbridge and SouthWest Gas, important leaders to drive improvements and final commercial success were those repeatedly testing what is now multiple generations of the Explorer tools.

Key leaders for live-testing of the products include: National Fuel Gas, SoCal Gas, National Grid, Questar Gas, PG&E and Con Edison (Figure 1). Throughout the process, there was high participation and input by operators from many of the funding companies at various levels. Many of the funders, as well as other gas companies, have hired Pipetel to provide live, commercial services using the final platforms, which resulted from the many phases of development and testing by NYSEARCH members. An example is shown in Figure 2 with a crew from CHG&E. (Note: the EXP 30/36 and EXP 16/18 platforms are still undergoing development and testing and will be commercialized in the coming months.)

Figure 2: One of many testing phases with a crew from CHG&E.

The ability to locomote in live conditions through unpiggable pipe challenges with back-to-back bends, constricting plug valves, vertical climbs, mitered bends and low flow are a key advantage the Explorer range of untethered platforms holds. Further, the program was designed to use commercially available equipment (such as fittings) to launch the system live for long distances from one launch tube (Figure 3). Finally, in recent years, through lessons learned and the ability to focus on supporting technologies, NYSEARCH and Invodane/Pipetel have developed and tested several key innovations to add capabilities to the Explorer series of products, such as additional types of sensing and inline power charging without retrieval.

[inline:Figure 3: The typical scene during a launch.]

Evolutionary Release Of Technologies By Experienced Licensee

Invodane/Pipetel brings to the formula for R&D commercial success a wealth of experience. In addition to years of development and field-testing with inline inspection innovations, the staff shows the conservatism needed, concerning safety and release of quantum leap technologies. Starting in December 2010, the EXP 6/8 platform, developed by Carnegie Mellon University through the leadership of NYSEARCH with co-funding from the Department of Energy, with its innovative Remote Field Eddy Current Sensor (RFEC – developed through NYSEARCH by SouthWest Research Institute) was introduced after many live tests. Afterward, with additional development and testing sponsored solely by SoCal Gas, the EXP 10/14 was introduced in 2012, using the traditional magnetic flux leakage (MFL) sensor. It was also determined that all pipe sizes with 8-inch diameter and greater would use the MFL sensor (Figure 4).

Figure 4: An illustration of the two different types of sensors.

In 2013, the EXP 20/26 was commercialized and features an MFL sensor and platform that can negotiate the unpiggable challenges – in particular, plug valves, which have required innovation from technologies providers, including Automatika Inc. and Invodane. The EXP 30/36, funded by NYSEARCH members and developed by Invodane, is expected to be introduced with all the same capabilities as the EXP 20/26 in late 2013.

Due to the innovation of these platforms, Invodane set a strategy of introducing advances in an evolutionary way with technologies that cross-cut across the multiple sizes. They also worked with NYSEARCH members in a disciplined fashion to test each innovation from the simple to the complex with a carefully timed plan.

For example, rather than moving quickly to the final ruggedized and pre-commercial version of the EXP 20/26 platform (the platform addressing pipe sizes, which need all the unpiggable innovations), Invodane developed an interim prototype, including some of the innovations (namely the advanced MFL sensor that could negotiate plug valves) without complicating the design with every intended commercial improvement. This interim platform was the subject of much attention when it was tested by SoCal Gas in November 2010. Pressure tests and non-live tests were performed systematically before live jobs. Live tests were also systematically planned from the less difficult to the more difficult.

The Explorer platform brings a range of innovations that are not limited to locomotion capabilities. It also uses wireless communications for real-time platform control, high-resolution cameras on both ends of the platform, an advanced Graphical User Interface (GUI), and several sensors and software diagnostic tools to use when unexpected conditions are encountered.

Because of the evolutionary and extensive testing of all of the sub-systems in laboratory and live field conditions, Invodane and Pipetel personnel have experienced a wide range of opportunities and challenges (such as unanticipated obstacles, and oil and debris found in the pipeline) and have worked practically with operators in sometimes tough conditions to get the R&D tests and now commercial jobs done correctly and efficiently.

Enhancements Based On User Needs And Technology Flexibility
The design strategy that resulted in the series of Explorer products has also allowed NYSEARCH and the commercial team to enhance the Explorer range of platforms with supporting technologies in areas that were not in the initial design focus but can add significant sensing capabilities to the tools and improve their operational efficiency.

The initial program was focused on corrosion measurement and development/integration of suitable RFEC- and MFL-sensing modules for this tractor-based platform. Now that the first order problem of measuring corrosion anomalies has been addressed with the proven platform sensing modules, additional needs are being addressed for mechanical damage, ovality and crack-sensing. (See Figure 5 for illustration of the integrated mechanical damage sensor that is being offered commercially in 2013.)

Figure 5: An illustration of the integrated mechanical damage sensor being offered commercially.

Thus, in 2011, with support from many of the original NYSEARCH funders, Invodane and El Paso/Kinder Morgan, we collectively embarked on a supporting technologies program, which has produced a fully integrated mechanical damage/ovality sensor, an inline charging system, a working design concept for pipeline cleaning and prototypes to be tested later in 2013 for crack-sensing. Also, a “rescue tool” has been developed should the Explorer platform lose all battery power or be disabled for some other reason. This tractor-driven tool is similar to the robot and will be used in a live line for test purposes this summer.

Working Closely With Operators And Early Adopters
It took many years for NYSEARCH to identify and secure a commercial partner for this complicated technology because this technology is being offered to industry in which different sectors see needs and solutions at different levels, and some companies that market inline inspection services don’t want to acknowledge that any pipe is unpiggable. However, given the real pipe system constraints of those NYSEARCH members who championed and lead this effort, the need remained despite other technologies being advanced. Thus, once we secured Invodane/Pipetel as the commercial partner, the two companies worked cooperatively with NYSEARCH through an extended technology transfer period (starting in 2008 and completing in the 2010-2012) and committed their financial and technical resources for a timeframe that other prospective partners would not accommodate.

However, through this period, Invodane/Pipetel had full NYSEARCH member support and a management team that spoke conservatively and openly about the state of progress being made. In addition, because of Invodane/Pipetel’s method of work and full disclosure to the early adopters/users about problems encountered and lessons learned, the operators have been complementary about the level of service and work product that Invodane/Pipetel has provided. Timely delivery of high-quality inspection reports has also aided their positive reputation.

By nature, new technologies emerging from R&D encounter problems when applied in the real world. In cases in which the Explorer platform being tested fell short and not all the expected data was captured, the operator worked with Invodane/Pipetel and was heard on methods to address the challenges and solutions. Thus, to date, the gas industry has been served by a company that has a profound respect for the challenges of working in a live gas environment. Like other seasoned service providers, Invodane/Pipetel has a keen awareness of the need to work side-by-side in implementing the robotic platforms, sensing solutions and related supporting technologies.

Industry-Driven Planning For Robotics Technologies Going Forward
In a formal, long-range R&D planning process, which we refer to as “technology roadmapping,” NYSEARCH staff and members have considered what the next generation of innovations should be for the robotic platforms and pipeline integrity inspection during the next five to 15 years. Because of the modularity and flexibility of the Explorer range of platforms, there have been several discussions about additional features to the platform for sensing other pipeline conditions.

Beyond crack-sensing, which is one of the highest priority activities for supplementing the current Explorer, the group has considered additional challenges, such as measurement within elbows and bends, very tight distances between bends, full cleaning of debris ahead of Explorer inspections, use of MFL on smaller diameter pipes, combination sensors and other features. Further, a long-range goal is to work on quantum-leap technologies that do not require access to the pipe through a launcher and can provide high-quality information, equivalent to what is possible through ILI or Explorer, but from aboveground.
In the immediate future, NYSEARCH intends to work with its partners to improve reliability of some of the newer sensing modules through additional testing and engineering improvements, which come from lessons learned during that testing. In addition, with Invodane and committed members who are completing details on live testing, our plans include complete evaluation and implementation of the larger EXP 30/36 and EXP 16/18, which we anticipate will soon be added to the list of commercial successes. One day soon, the current chapter on robotic inspection for unpiggable gas pipes will be fully written.