Ensuring Pipeline Safety with Aerial System Solutions

Although affordable and accessible energy make our lives more convenient, the production, transportation, and consumption of gas and oil come with numerous risks. Pipelines are the backbone of accessible energy. And because they’re essential for transporting petroleum products over long distances, pipeline safety is critical to preventing catastrophic disasters.

Let’s look at the risks involved with living near pipelines. Then, we’ll explore revolutionary technologies available to operators to detect and monitor potential issues.

pipeline safety warning sign
Source: Shutterstock

Living Within the Danger Zone

Pipelines are the most effective way to transport natural gas between production areas and storage facilities and to the end-user. However, living near a pipeline poses significant risks, such as explosions, fires, and environmental damage caused by:

  • Leaks
  • Pressure irregularities
  • Corrosion
  • Poor design or construction
  • Old infrastructures
  • Substandard maintenance practices

Health Effects

A 2018 study by the University of Colorado School of Public Health investigated the health impact of living near a pipeline. The state requirements specify a 500-foot safety distance between new oil and gas facilities and properties like homes, though many people live closer than that. However, the study found that distance isn’t enough to protect residents from the hazardous air pollutants that affect their health.

Air pollutant concentrations—and, therefore, health risks—increase with proximity to an oil and gas facility. Effects from exposure to and inhalation of carcinogenic substances including benzene and alkanes are of particular concern. People living within 500 feet of a facility are eight times more likely to develop cancer than the upper limit laid out by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

This isn’t surprising—the average benzene concentrations in the air within the 500-foot zone are 41 times higher than concentrations in the air more than a mile away. What’s more, nighttime emissions don’t disperse as easily as those in the day due to high atmospheric stability.

Cancer isn’t the only risk. People living in close range of oil and gas facilities are also more susceptible to chronic and acute health issues. They may suffer from nose bleeds, asthma, migraines, fatigue, and chronic sinus infections.

While other living conditions and air pollutants from other sources can certainly elevate health risks, pipeline safety measures are still of utmost importance. The good news is modern technology enables oil and gas companies to effectively monitor their emissions.

Ensuring Pipeline Safety with Aerial Data

The inspection and regular maintenance of pipelines (whether in oil, gas, water, or manufacturing) is critical to mitigating health and safety concerns and financial losses due to inefficiencies and leaks. However, the vast distribution networks and varied terrain pipelines that pass through make safety, maintenance, and inspection a major challenge. And while there are different ways to monitor pipelines, techniques are often labor intensive and costly to implement.

While supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems capture essential metrics such as flow rate, temperature, and pressure, localizing potential leaks remains challenging. In the past, SCADA systems detected less than 50% of leaks and spills. Instead, on-site inspections, contractors, and employees ended up detecting many of the problems.

Routine visual pipeline and right-of-way (ROW) inspections are vital, but they require significant manpower. They’re also costly and prone to human error and eye fatigue. Luckily, new technologies provide significant improvements in pipeline safety monitoring.

By implementing autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and visualization software for ongoing pipeline inspections, you consistently gather visual data of your assets and ROW. These technologies reduce the required manpower and labor costs and minimize inaccuracies. More importantly, by detecting issues before they become problematic, you can save millions and reduce safety and health disasters.

aerial data collection
Source: Shutterstock

UAV Applications

There are numerous applications for UAVs in the oil and gas industry. For instance, drones can be used to:

  • Perform initial surveys
  • Monitor construction progress
  • Inspect storage tanks and vent towers
  • Take volume and area measurements
  • Assist in emergency response scenarios
  • Execute terrain modeling

This non-intrusive method for pipeline safety and environmental inspections enables vast area coverage in a short time. What would take your labor force weeks to execute, UAVs can complete in hours.

Drones can also access hard-to-reach areas, pose less risk to your labor force, and are cost-effective. Let’s explore additional UAV applications.

Pipeline Surveillance

With little or no human intervention, a drone can complete pipeline safety surveillance and capture video or aerial imagery at specific points. It can also make course corrections and hover in place as directed by preconfigured or in-flight parameters.

UAVs live-stream surveillance images and generate alerts if they encounter unusual scenarios. Data is then uploaded to cloud-based or back-end servers for storage and further analysis.

Corrosion and Physical Damage Detection

A drone-mounted high-resolution camera can detect protective coating loss, joint faults, warping, indentations, and other irregularities on a pipeline. On-board video analytics enable the drone to autonomously track the pipeline’s contour, continuously inspecting for external damage and corrosion.

Pipeline Leak Detection

Gas sensors enable drones to detect gas leaks. Drones with hyperspectral or infrared cameras can also measure the absorption of background radiation at multiple wavelengths. This helps identify the nature of leaks, whether on solid surfaces or in liquid or gas forms.

Other ways to identify internal corrosion and escaping gases include backscatter absorption gas imaging, thermal imaging, and optical gas imaging. The technology can analyze the data together with wind speed and direction to assess the affected area range and direction of the plume.

ROW Survey

ROW encroachment can result from construction, vegetation growth, residential space, and even deliberate vandalism. With a high-definition camera or a LiDAR, drones can identify and map out the affected and surrounding areas.

Boost Your Bottom Line and Reputation as a Safety-First Provider

With just under 1 million oil and gas wells in the U.S. alone and more than 17.6 million Americans living within a mile of these facilities, pipeline safety is a crucial responsibility of oil and gas companies. Regulatory compliance and aging infrastructures add additional pressure to catch inconsistencies before they turn into catastrophes.

SkyX revolutionizes the way aerial data is obtained, analyzed, and acted upon. Our reliable, best-in-class drones help you collect aerial data and insights efficiently, safely, and accurately.

With lower operational costs and reduced incidences, the right pipeline safety inspection solution can transform your bottom line and your reputation as a safety-first provider. Contact our SkyX team today to book your demo.

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