Automation Can Help You Preserve Pipeline Integrity

A natural gas pipeline in the Mojave desert

The oil & gas industry is in the midst of a perfect storm. The way that you and other midstream operators handle day-to-day business in the here, now, and foreseeable future – is changing at breakneck speeds.

This storm is likely posing major challenges to your asset integrity efforts, but autonomous systems that capture visual data on your asset can help maintain standards of excellence despite the loss of resources and available staff.

Are You Feeling the Pressure Yet?

Here are some of the challenges you may already be facing as a result of the price war and COVID-19:

  • The conundrum of doing more with less: As resources begin to strain, dramatic cuts are likely coming to your operating budget and staff. Yet your assets still exist, they still face the same threats to integrity, and you’re still responsible for keeping them whole and intact.
  • Manpower is at a premium: Reduction of active staff is a painful reality, but COVID-19 also presents new challenges for managing your remaining personnel. Social distancing can hamper normal field protocols, valuable on-site staff may be out sick or in self-quarantine, and office employees are shifting to work-from-home routines. Your remote workers will show up to video conference calls in suit jackets, crisply-ironed shirts and ties – only to be wearing gym shorts just outside of frame.
  • Core priorities are falling to the wayside: As reductions to resources and staff mount, hard calls get made about what to prioritize and what to forgo. As a result, things like routine inspection can fall to the wayside, and these lapses can lead to major incidents.

You can fill these gaps with autonomous systems, to ensure that your pipeline integrity doesn’t suffer.

A Robotic Eye in the Sky

Automation likely isn’t a new concept for your pipeline integrity management program. The SCADA systems that form the backbone of pipeline monitoring automatically converge data from a variety of in-line sensors that measure fluid volume, flow rate, pressure, temperature, and more. With this network, control room operators can examine all the key metrics of their pipeline from a single interface. When an anomalous reading indicative of a leak comes through, the control room operator is notified of the issue. This is automation in action!

Up until now, automation logic has been the exclusive domain of in-line monitoring technology, while visual inspections of pipelines and their right-of-way remain manual and time-consuming processes.

For instance, Bob and his maintenance crew, who have to walk a remote stretch of the pipeline once every few weeks. Bob is an industry vet who’s been working with pipelines for decades, if he gets eyes on the telltale signs of a leak – like dead vegetation or soil discoloration – he’ll know to call it in. But Bob is only as good as what he can actually see, and from his low vantage point on the ground, he can miss a lot of important issues on the ROW. Geological deformations, excavation, and even signs of third-party activity can be hard to spot if you don’t happen to walk right over them. Also, Bob’s getting old, and he’s getting really tired of these walks.

Or take Charlie, the Cessna pilot whose contracting as a pipeline inspector. Every so often, Charlie rips down the ROW at 95 miles an hour in his plane for an inspection. He’s trying to keep an eye out for potential issues on the ROW, but let’s be honest, he’s first and foremost living out his lifelong passion for flying. There’s a chance he’ll spot some major issues, say a washed-out hillside with an exposed pipe after a heavy storm period, but he’s likely to miss important subtle changes that have occurred since his last inspection.

The methods above yield highly-subjective and inconsistent data. This doesn’t have to be the case! New technologies like AI algorithms and UAVs are forming an all-star tag-team for sourcing, analyzing, and actioning visual data on remote assets of a massive geospatial scale.

A Typical Day for An Autonomous Aerial Data Solution

Alongside a pipeline right-of-way sits a shipping container. It’s unassuming, the type of container that may hold some tools or basic materials. Suddenly, the top opens like a pair of bay doors, and a platform rises with a UAV sitting atop it. Cue the angelic voices singing in perfect harmony and unison. The propellers whir up, and the UAV takes off vertically into the air. It’s a rotary-wing vehicle that is highly-maneuverable and capable of traveling long distances on a single charge. The UAV hovers into position over the right-of-way and begins its inspection.

As the UAV flies the route, a gimballed high-resolution camera mounted to the underside of the fuselage snaps overlapping pictures of the ROW. At the end of this segment of the pipeline, lies another container. The doors open, the platform rises, and the UAV lands itself into the station. Safe and sound. As the vehicle enters its shelter, a gantry docks into the vehicle providing power for recharging and a strong network connection to transfer the captured imagery to the cloud for analysis. The station performs a system check on its good friend and prepares for the next flight.

This entire time, there isn’t a human to be seen. The protocols of the ground station, the flight of the aircraft, the transfer of data – it’s all happening through software that manages these processes autonomously. In an office far away from the pipeline, a remote pilot-in-command – functioning more like an air traffic controller than a conventional pilot – monitors everything that’s happening through the very same software. He’s there as a final back-up, able to issue commands to the vehicle in the event of an emergency, but the vehicle itself contains a variety of automated failsafe protocols that it can readily execute. Best not to tell the pilot that he’s a redundancy, trust us.

Each of these inspections yields thousands of images for analysis. If you leave this task to a poor soul on your team, you’re going to melt their brain from the sheer tedium. Thankfully, what constitutes an overwhelming amount of data for humans to process can be handled with ease by computer vision technology .

Using a neural network that mimics the visual cortex of our brains (it’s not as gross as it sounds), AI utilizes keen visual perception to detect anomalies and classify them under the umbrella of issues you’re monitoring for. Leak detection, right-of-way issues, unauthorized third-party activity, and even corrosion for above-ground pipelines – AI scans for key indicators and flags them for review by a human subject matter expert. The “intelligence” part of AI is still a bit lacking in the decision-making department, but they get by with a little help from their human friends. From this review, you receive a high-impact report of the most actionable issues on the pipeline, that you can use to inform critical maintenance efforts.

Solve the Do More For Less Conundrum

With an autonomous aerial system routinely capturing visual data on your pipeline, you can drive new standards of excellence in your asset integrity efforts:

  • Reserve Resources and Personnel for the Important Things: With the aerial system handling the tedium of day-to-day monitoring, you can reserve field deployment of resources and personnel for the most mission-critical maintenance efforts.
  • Get Valuable Insights Without Melting Your Team’s Brain: Humans fatigue from analyzing thousands of images everyday, AI algorithms thrive on it. The steady stream of basic imagery from the UAV is effectively boiled down to the most valuable points of data by the AI for your team’s review.
  • Effective PIM-From-Home: Deliver the key data points your teams need to make intelligent and informed decisions around pipeline integrity – wherever they may be. We can’t do anything about getting them to wear pants while working from home, but we can help them do their job better – regardless of what they are or aren’t wearing.
  • Sci-Fi Levels of ROI with Access to Predictive Analytics: Not only does this process allow you to create an accurate snapshot of their pipeline on a routine basis, but over time, these critical points of data can unlock access to predictive analytics.

Automating the process by which you source, analyze, and action visual data on your pipeline can alleviate the strains put on your organization by the oil price war and COVID-19. There is massive value in the here and now, but there is plenty more to gain in the future by making an autonomous aerial data solution a core part of your pipeline integrity management program.

Have questions about how high-quality aerial data can elevate your organization?
Contact our team to discuss your unique challenges and data requirements.