February 2019, Vol. 246, No. 2


How the IIoT and Edge Computing are Transforming Pipeline Management

By John Fryer, Senior Director, Industry Solutions, Stratus Technologies 

Energy pipeline operations serve a simple purpose: Move petroleum products from Point A to Point B. Fulfilling that mission, however, is far from simple. Moving millions of dollars of product through hundreds or thousands of miles of pipeline requires a complex network of pumps or compression stations managed by automated control systems, including SCADA systems.   

A failure or leak at any point could lead to a disruption in supply or, worse yet, a regulatory violation leading to costly fines and, potentially, to a public relations nightmare 

That risk is amplified by the fact that much of the U.S. pipeline infrastructure is aging. And many of the experienced personnel laid off following the financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent drop in energy prices have not been replaced, leaving some field operations under-staffed. Which means when things go south, there is no one there to identify and rapidly address the problem. Having someone drive hours to assess a potential pipeline issue is neither efficient nor responsive enough to mitigate risk effectively.  

How can pipeline operators meet these challenges, reducing business risk while increasing pipeline safety, security and efficiency?  

Intelligent Edge  

Forward-looking pipeline operators are turning to industrial internet of things (IIoT) technologies, including distributed sensors and edge computing systems that push intelligence right to the pumping or compressor stations or other field locations. Edge systems provide the computing power necessary to perform sophisticated monitoring and control of sensitive pipeline systems that need to run around the clock in remote, unstaffed locations.  

With the ability to gather and analyze data from sensors monitoring critical pipeline components in real time, edge computing systems can perform a range of valuable functions. In the event of a problem, the system can identify the source in real time, take action to mitigate the damage, and alert the centralized control facility with specific details on what happened and which components were involved. This can eliminate the need to send a technician to the site to determine what spares are required, dramatically reducing downtime and improving operational efficiency.  

Predictive Maintenance  

Even more valuable is the ability of edge computing to help avoid such problems by enabling predictive maintenance. The system can gather and analyze data on a variety of performance parameters for critical components, such as pump temperature fluctuations or vibration frequencies, predicting when maintenance or replacement are required.   

Over time, as more data on equipment performance is gathered and analyzed – and with the help of machine learning technologies – edge systems get even smarter, improving their ability to predict component failure before it occurs.  

Predictive maintenance has already proven to be a “killer app” in other industries, saving enterprises millions in unplanned downtime, technician time and unnecessary equipment replacement. This capability has tremendous promise in the oil and gas industry where the part to be replaced may by hundreds of miles away at a distant compressor station, or a costly helicopter ride away on an offshore drilling rig.  

Unlimited Possibilities  

The potential for edge computing to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of pipeline management is virtually unlimited. The rise of inexpensive sensors and cost-effective, standards-based edge computing platforms opens the door to a vast array of high-value applications.  

Consider the possibilities for leak detection or corrosion detection. An intelligent edge system could detect a pipeline leak or a developing weak spot in near real time and deliver an alert. An edge system could even be configured to autonomously close valves to isolate the affected section of pipeline, safeguarding people, product and the environment.  

Physical security of pipelines is another critical application where edge intelligence has a role to play. An edge system with advanced visual recognition and audio processing capabilities could detect suspicious activity in the field – differentiating between a human interloper and a coyote on his evening rounds – alerting security personnel to potential threats in real time, while minimizing false alarms. This could improve security and eliminate the need for humans to stare at multiple screens for hours at a time.  

All or Nothing?  

A key advantage of today’s purpose-built edge computing platforms is their localized nature. Individual systems can be deployed where they are needed, enabling a phased, cost-effective approach to deployment. Start small and expand as you demonstrate value.  

As your edge infrastructure grows, the data that’s gathered becomes extremely valuable for a variety of business planning functions. While some real-time analytics can be performed at the edge, tapping the full value of collected data will require uploading it to cloud-based analytics platforms to gain a new level of visibility and insight into pipeline operations.   

However, this is not an all-or-nothing proposition. A hybrid approach, in which some data is retained at the edge and some is sent to the cloud, is a practical solution for powering business analytics while managing the use of costly cloud services.  

Keep It Simple  

When embarking on your edge computing journey, it is critical to deploy systems that are specifically designed for the task. Because IT skill sets are often in short supply in pipeline operations, edge systems must be simple to deploy and easy to maintain, including support for remote system management and servicing.   

It is also essential that edge systems be fault-tolerant to ensure continuous availability, and self-protecting to ensure valuable data is never lost.  

Not sure edge computing is in your future? Forward-looking oil and gas companies are already taking advantage of the intelligent edge to transform their operations.  

One the nation’s largest natural gas pipeline operators are using self-protecting edge systems for the HMI (human-machine interface) systems required to run its vast network of compressor stations. The data gathered by the edge platforms is used to perform prognostic analytics for predictive maintenance, saving the company approximately $2.3 million in maintenance costs in the first year, while running at 100% capacity.   

The opportunities are not limited to pipelines. An oil field operator in Alaska has deployed edge systems to monitor and control their water and wastewater systems, achieving significant reductions in water use in remote locations where infrastructure and energy are scarce and costly.   

An energy company operating on leased claims is using edge computing to measure oil and natural gas pumped out of its wells, ensuring accurate, verifiable payments to lease holders that have generated significant savings for the lessee.  

The intelligent edge is here, and the benefits are real. Starting small with a limited Determining the Bewspilot is a practical approach that can maximize value while minimizing risk. But the time to start is now. Because your competitors may already have an edge on you. P&GJ 

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