Pipeline Monitoring: Why the Status Quo Isn’t Working

pipeline inspection

Pipeline operators have a difficult job that is only getting harder with each passing year. You have to manage hundreds of miles of aging infrastructure, that often exists in remote and rugged locations. In fact, pipelines are only getting more susceptible to leaks and other structural integrity issues as they grow older, which makes pipeline monitoring unbearable.

Over the years, the oil and gas industry has implemented a number of solutions to combat leaks, but leaks still go undetected. If operators want to mitigate risks and control costs, the management model needs to shift from a reactive approach to a proactive one. The key to this shift is leveraging new technology to fill gaps.

Three Gaps in the Traditional Pipeline Integrity Management Workflow

Midstream oil and gas companies currently employ a variety of sensor technologies and inspection methods to detect leaks. Here are the three limitations that are restraining your ability to make better decisions around the health of your asset:

1. Sensor Technologies May Not Be Providing Actionable Data

Pipeline integrity management starts with monitoring your pipeline for abnormalities. Right now, this takes place through a handful of sensor technologies that are in or on the pipe itself:

  • Pipeline Inspection Gauges (PIGs): A PIG is a multi-purpose cleaning and inspection device that travels directly through the pipe, making its journey from point A to B. As it moves through the pipe, the PIG can use magnetic or ultrasonic readings to detect leaks, corrosion, or other flaws. Due to this mode of deployment, PIGs can get stuck or malfunction in the pipe and miss critical anomalies.
  • Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) Systems: SCADA systems collect information such as temperature, flow rate, and pressure from sensors in valve stations along the pipeline route. When something isn’t right, the SCADA system will quickly alert the control room of any issues. However, SCADA sensors are usually separated by segments of pipe spanning up to 65 miles at times. When a sensor goes off, a whole section of pipeline requires inspection, as the sensors do not provide a set of precise coordinates. Additionally, false readings spur costly inspection missions that are ultimately unnecessary.
  • Fiber Optics: Fiber optic technology does serve its purpose as a high-quality distributed sensing system for leak detection quite well. Because the fiber itself acts as the sensor, pipeline operators can effectively monitor hundreds of kilometers of pipeline in real-time. Fiber optic systems are able to monitor temperature, deformation, and even seismic activity in the area. Unfortunately, the exorbitant price tag of fiber optic solutions makes them cost-prohibitive for many operators and fiber cannot be retrofitted to older pipeline structures.

We’re not suggesting that pipeline operators stop using sensors, we are suggesting that operators need more information than these sensor systems currently provide. Layering in high-quality visual data can reveal blind spots of these systems and help to identify weak points on the asset before serious damage occurs.

2. Leak Detection is Inefficient and Putting Lives at Risk

Many companies also dispatch manned aircraft and/or ground crews to perform a visual inspection. Depending on the travel distance and the degree of geographical precision the sensor can provide, it can take days, if not weeks, to perform this kind of operation. Not to mention, the method by which you deploy a crew carries inherent inefficiencies and dangers:

  • Ground Services: Responding to an alert with a ground crew can be a time-consuming affair. Depending on the terrain and nature of the damage, it can be difficult for boots-on-the-ground personnel to visually confirm damage on the pipeline, even with precise coordinates. Most important of all, you’re putting your crews into dangerous situations, especially when they don’t know the details of what they might encounter.
  • Manned Aircraft: While an aerial crew can cover a greater distance in a shorter timeframe, it’s a methodology that still involves inherent risk for your staff. Aerial accidents involving planes and helicopters during long-range asset inspection missions are not unheard of. Piloting the aircraft in a way that’s conducive to data collection requires a great amount of training and experience. Even still, images gathered from planes and helicopters is generally low-resolution and inconsistent from inspection to inspection.

Pipeline operators need a consistent method to visually-verify leaks in a quicker and safer way.

3. Incomplete, Siloed, Low-Quality Data

Data stored locally on a PIG canister. Readings from a SCADA sensor. Photos taken from a plane. Many oil and gas companies are trying to mash these different data sets together to get a complete picture of their assets. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to integrate these silos of data in a way that’s centrally available and easy to access. Integration aside, many of the detection methods discussed above yield data that is incomplete or lacking in quality.

This fragmented data workflow slows down the decision-making process. You could be wasting precious time piecing together the data you need to initiate remediation efforts, while a costly leak goes unaddressed.

Completing the Picture with Unmanned Aerial Inspection

Technologies for solving these issues already exist. Adding high-quality aerial data to your toolkit of existing technologies for pipeline monitoring can fill the gaps in your decision making. The key to getting consistent, quality data from aerial inspection is via autonomous aerial systems. A purpose-built drone for long-range inspection provides several advantages in day-to-day pipeline operations:

  • Rapid Response: Following an urgent alert from a PIG or SCADA system, a drone can dispatch immediately to inspect the area of concern, without putting human lives in dangerous scenarios.
  • Precise Visual Inspection: Upon reaching the area of inspection, the drone can take a series of precisely timed, high-resolution overlapping photos of the pipeline and surrounding areas, allowing operators to visualize their SCADA data. Built-in geo-referencing provides an exact record of where each photo was taken in time and space.
  • Consistent Data Collection: A key advantage over manned aircraft, an unmanned drone can collect data in a repeatable fashion that makes it much easier to compare current and historical data.
  • Actionable Reporting: View, track and manage Areas of Interest (AOIs) identified by your aerial data in a user-friendly interface that makes it easy to quickly identify problems and begin remediation efforts.

Not only does this new echelon of aerial data improve your ability to respond to issues, but when you make it a routine part of your ongoing monitoring, you can unlock predictive analytics that allow you to shift from reactive to proactive pipeline management.

It’s time to explore this incredible opportunity that lies just beyond the status quo that enables midstream oil and gas companies to reduce manual effort, streamline operations, minimize cost, and ultimately improve the integrity, safety, and health of their pipeline.

Looking to significantly improve pipeline integrity? Contact us today for a demo.