October 2019, Vol. 246, No. 10

Drones & Pipelines

Building A Holistic Pipeline Integrity Program

By Didi Horn, CEO, SkyX

While new pipelines continue to be constructed the world over, the vast majority of them were laid in the 40s, 50s and 60s, often in remote or isolated areas. Today, operators are constantly facing an uphill battle of maintaining infrastructure well past its shelf life.

As operators continue to tackle the issues plaguing the industry, the cry for help is resoundingly one phrase: we need more data!

Current Technology

Operators have put a number of inspection and monitoring technologies in place to help better combat the challenges faced. These include Pipeline Inspection Gauges (Pigs), SCADA control systems, fiber-optic cables and aerial monitoring. While these technologies offer different levels of insights into particular aspects of an asset, they also have some limitations.

PIGs are used to collect information about the pipeline including corrosion, cracks, pitting and temperature. As they run through the pipeline, however, they can get stuck and miss anomalies that could lead to further infrastructure damage.

SCADA systems are widely used to monitor drops in pressure along the line, but do not provide cm or mm-level accuracy on the location of leaks. Sensors are also known to provide false readings.

While fiber-optics solutions are able to provide cm or mm level accuracy, they are also expensive and cannot be retrofitted to older pipelines. Data shows that the most incidents happen on pipelines that are 33 years old.

Aerial monitoring with planes and helicopters are widely used to gather images of the asset. The imagery collected is of poor quality, is low-resolution and may miss the smaller anomalies. Plus, the cost of fuel and labor costs makes aerial support expensive for small to midsize companies.

It is important to note that every system has its merits within a pipeline integrity management program. The only way operators can truly develop a holistic view of their assets is by building an ecosystem of interoperable technologies which provide a constant flow of accurate and reliable data.

The most advanced operators use all of these different technologies to develop a clear view of their assets. With the data gathered from Pigs, SCADA, fiber optics and aerial systems, an operator is able to see exactly where problematic areas are, and in some cases, predict an issue before it becomes a problem.

However, the problem encountered by most midstream companies is one of data silos. If the data accumulated by all of these different systems aren’t integrated in the same platform, and in an easy-to-use application such as a GIS or mapping tool, operators are essentially blind to the true state of their assets and do not have access to the data needed to help them pinpoint issues and to make confident, proactive decisions.

As a first step, midstream operators should be making every effort to align their processes and decisions around a GIS or other mapping applications. These tools are vital in bringing all internal stakeholders, asset managers, GIS teams and maintenance crews, into alignment.

Secondly, it’s equally vital to ensure that the technologies being used produce data sets that can be easily integrated into the GIS.

Lastly, in the past couple of years, there has been a lot of talk about AI and predictive analytics, and being able to better analyze, identify, assess, monitor and avoid problems before they become critical issues. This should be exciting news for any pipeline operator. The building block for predictive analytics is having access to a steady stream of data, so computer vision software can run change detection and build an accurate historical view of issues, so it can then predict with a high level of accuracy where problems are most likely going to occur on an asset.

Long-Range Autonomous Aerial Systems

Operators are currently using airplanes and helicopters to gather the aerial data they need. Given the risk that these vehicles pose operationally, especially with regards to health and safety, organizations are now looking to other technologies, such as drones, to provide the data needed.

While a few oil and gas companies are adopting drones, they tend to be short-range multirotor systems which tend to be operationally heavy and aren’t able to inspect hundreds of miles of pipelines without a human pilot chasing the drone to maintain communication with it at all times. Additionally, they fly much slower than fixed wing drones, which means that it takes time to cover hundreds of miles of pipelines during one flight.

Additionally, short-range aerial systems don’t have the integrated capacity to record, quantify, analyze and send data back in real time to operators who want to identify problems and mitigate risks and disruptions to the pipelines as soon as possible.

The benefit to having an integrated long-range system to monitoring pipelines, especially a fully-autonomous one, is that these systems can fly faster, cover greater distances and function reliably in a variety of weather conditions, without having to rely on pilots to fly the route. The data accumulated by these systems are high-quality, in real-time and actionable almost immediately.

This was tested in real life on a freezing cold day in Alberta. The temperature was hovering at -20 degrees Celsius/-4 degrees Fahrenheit, when SkyX was invited to participate in a trial by a major natural gas pipeline operator. The drone flew autonomously at a height of 60 meters and provided high resolution imagery of the pipeline right of way. SkyX analyzed over 5,000 images accumulated by the drone, and uncovered anomalies such as the following:

Improper backfill – The drone captured several images of improper backfill, which was shared with the pipeline operator who confirmed that they had construction done during the summer. The company got the construction company to fill the depression and avoided a right of way violation.

Wildlife – The pipeline company was concerned that wildlife not be disturbed by the trial. Our aerial system took several images which revealed that wildlife, including moose, didn’t notice the drone. This confirmed that the company could use our system without disturbing the local wildlife.

These images are then time-stamped and georeferenced, classified against an operator’s requirements and quickly imported into a GIS for easy access. Once in the application, an operator has access to historical data to better understand how and why an issue may occur. In pivoting towards predictive analytics and change detection allows technology providers, like SkyX, to monitor trends and identify smaller issues as predictors of larger problems and prevent their occurrence.

This type of turnkey solution is one that motivates the industry, which has struggled for decades to break data silos and integrate it into one centralized hub where the data can be analyzed, and decisions can be made knowing the entire picture of what’s happening with the pipelines. These end-to-end systems are the most effective and efficient way to inspect and monitor the pipelines and facilities along the way.

The nature of hydrocarbon means companies have had to build and maintain infrastructure in some of the most inhospitable places on earth. Having an aerial system that combines high-quality aerial photography, real-time data collection and analysis with interconnected end-to-end systems can help companies make intelligent and informed decisions quicker, while also improving their safety record. That’s great for the bottom line. P&GJ

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