Sophisticated Solutions for Sophisticated Pipeline Product Theft

Truck detected on a pipeline right-of-way

When you think of product theft on a pipeline, you likely think of some of the more extreme cases of theft from across the globe. Rocket attacks on pipelines throughout the African continent or the devastating explosion from an illegal tap gone awry in Mexico last year.

However, pipeline product theft is manifesting in much more surreptitious ways across the globe. Increasingly, illegal tappers are using sophisticated, professional methods to extract product from pipelines virtually undetected.

Traditional Leak Detection Technologies Aren’t Keeping Up

Here are some of the ways that a well-executed product theft operation can conceal itself from pipeline operators:

  • Illegal hot taps can evade in-line inspections: Using miniscule pinhole drillings and non-metallic components valve components can negate both ultrasonic and magnetic in-line analysis techniques. Not to mention, by installing an illegal tap close to legitimate fittings, criminals can fool operators into mistaking hot tap fixtures for normal fittings.
  • Slow siphon rates can deceive SCADA systems: Pinhole drillings allow thieves to siphon product at a rate that avoids the substantial pressure changes which trigger alerts in flow measurement systems. Need more stolen product? Simply make further pinhole taps to the pipe.
  • Difficulty pinpointing sensor alerts: Most leak detection systems only provide a general alert regarding a wide-ranging pipeline segment. When the alarm sounds, you still need to pinpoint the specific location of the problem, an exceedingly difficult feat on a stretch of pipeline spanning hundreds of miles.
  • Illegal activity can remain well-concealed to the human eye: Without frequent monitoring of the pipeline – multiple times a day – it’s rare to catch a hot tap in the act and the remaining evidence of an excavation can be difficult for a person to spot. Collection of stolen product for transport usually happens near the pipeline, but some operations run hoses ranging from 100-1000m offsite for worry-free transfer.

Pipeline operators cannot continue to rely on traditional leak detection technologies if they hope to properly address illegal activity.

New Technologies Can Overcome These Limitations

Two new technologies that can aid pipeline operators in the anti-theft effort are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Working in tandem, these technologies can form the backbone of a hyper-efficient aerial monitoring workflow that gets you the data to recognize, locate, and deter illegal activity happening on your pipeline.

In a data sourcing and collection scenario, the efficiency of a UAV and its ability to fly missions repeatedly is virtually unmatched, especially when it can operate without the need for an onsite pilot. Essentially, the vehicle is flying a precise, programmable flight path that ensures that the visual verification data sets remain consistent from flight-to-flight.

With the right infrastructure in place, an autonomous UAV can take-off from a launch station, fly a segment of pipeline, capture high-resolution imagery, land back on a station, transmit data for processing, recharge for the next flight, and repeat the process again.

Where the UAV is all about collecting the raw data, computer vision software using machine-learning algorithms refine it all down into actionable insights. Algorithms are faster at analyzing the data coming off the vehicle and detecting indicators of illegal activity around a pipeline such as people or vehicles, tracks on the ground, excavation sites, construction debris, and environmental indicators of a spill. With final review by a human subject matter expert, operators will have a picklist of actionable occurrences around their asset.

This untapped (pun intended) combination of AI data analysis and human decision-making intelligence is a key enabler for pipeline operators. With valuable data-driven insights around their pipeline, operators can more successfully deter illegal activity and maintain a safe environment around their asset.

How Better Aerial Data Can Disrupt Illegal Activity

With the right aerial data solution, leveraging both drones and AI, operators can gain immediate advantages over would-be pipeline product thieves:

  • Impede illegal taps with persistent inspections: Having an unmanned aerial system performing multiple aerial inspections throughout the day makes it harder for criminals to tap the pipeline without being caught in the act.
  • Identify subtle indicators of illegal activity: The combination of consistent aerial data and AI is highly effective at detecting anomalies such as unauthorized persons or vehicles, tracks, construction debris, and excavation.
  • Leverage a bird’s-eye-view of your pipeline ROW: Flying at higher altitudes allows the aerial system to get a wider view of what’s happening around the right-of-way, potentially observing activity occurring outside the immediate vicinity of the pipeline.
  • Pinpoint and verify SCADA system alerts: If an attempted hot tap trips a sensor alert, an autonomous aerial system can be dispatched rapidly to inspect the affected pipeline segment. With high-quality visual verification data in hand, operators can quickly identify the problem and begin remediation efforts.
  • Counter covert efforts with the right payload: To detect illegal hot tappers who are working under cover of night, or perhaps transferring product to an area with tree cover, infrared sensors can be used to spot them with ease.

Beyond the immediate value in day-to-day inspections, working with this consistent visual data in the long-term will allow you to develop predictive analytics that can determine where the next event is likely to occur and how to allocate resources for anti-theft efforts. Identifying the hotspots of illegal activity and taking action to prevent it will significantly reduce costs associated with stolen product and theft-related damage.

Illegal tapping and product theft have entered a new era of sophistication that has left traditional leak detection technologies fumbling in the dark. To stand a chance against these efforts, pipeline operators must embrace new technologies – such as autonomous UAVs and AI – that arm them with necessary data to effectively combat pipeline crime.

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