Technologies Mimic the 5 Senses to Monitor Pipelines

Keystone 9C (200 Nikon)Technology advances enable proactive detection of leaks, breaches and ruptures.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported 623 gas and hazardous liquid pipeline incidents that resulted in 10 fatalities, 47 injuries and an estimated cost of $336 million in property damage. Material, weld and equipment failures represented over 28 percent of the causes, with corrosion and excavation damage accounting for 18.3 and 17.7 percent, respectively, for the years 1994-2013.

In 2010, a fatal natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California, prompted Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) officials to evaluate their existing pipeline monitoring technologies and recently have begun implementing new methods to ensure their pipelines are safer.

Pure Technologies staff insert the PureRobotics tool into a live pipeline in Calgary, Alberta. The tool is able to identify structural deterioration in pipelines of various  materials. Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

Pure Technologies staff insert the PureRobotics tool into a live pipeline in Calgary, Alberta inspect for structural deterioration.
Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

To prevent potentially dangerous and damaging accidents, other organizations such as TransCanada Corp., which is building the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) that serves the Maryland and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, are employing technologies that essentially see, hear, touch, smell and taste various aspects of their pipelines.

“Pipelines use a primary leak detection system called Computational Pipeline Monitoring (CPM) that uses a wide variety of measurements of the flow, pressure, temperature, density, etc. in the pipeline to determine the operating condition of the pipeline,” wrote Brian Wagg, director of business development and planning at C-FER Technologies, in an email. “These measurements are compared to a real-time model of what the flow conditions should be in the pipeline to determine if there is something unusual happening, such as an over-pressure event or leak.”

According to Wagg, monitoring and leak detection systems “can be installed inside the pipeline, run through the pipeline at intervals, installed outside the pipe in the trench, or be used on vehicles or on aircraft to monitor gas releases into the atmosphere.”

Sight

Helicopters outfitted with laser spectroscopic systems “see” methane gas from the air based on how laser light in methane concentrations reflects back differently to the sensor. PG&E has been testing an airborne, laser-based system for leak detection.

Juan Gil, a manager at TransCanada, says that, while the company uses infrared sensors to detect temperature changes in the pipeline at some of its pump stations, which could mean structural failures, the Keystone XL will instead focus on using flyovers coupled with software analytics in conjunction with cabling with various sensor types.

The PureRobotics platform is a condition assessment tool that identifies structural deterioration in critical pipelines. The system also features inline  video to observe internal pipe conditions. Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

The PureRobotics platform is a condition assessment tool that identifies structural deterioration in critical pipelines. The system also features inline video to observe internal pipe conditions.
Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

In certain situations, visual inspection is still a human’s job. According to Lyn Riggins, spokesperson for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, pipes larger than 55 inches are often inspected by humans, assuming the pipeline can be drained through diversion. But with smaller pipe sizes, the WSSC employs robots to crawl through pipes to allow for remote visual inspection of pipelines.

PG&E also utilizes mini-robots with high-definition cameras, and 3-D cameras that visually maps the outside of pipelines.

While humans and robots may be suited to inspect water systems, interior inspections of oil pipelines are impossible due to oil’s opaque nature, according to Bruce Dupuis, who handles threat management teams at TransCanada.

“It wouldn’t be particularly productive. [A robot] is not going to see through the oil,” Dupuis said. “Even if you diverted flow to a different line, you would have to evacuate product out of the line, which would be a huge logistic nightmare.”

Instead, according to Dupuis, TransCanada uses other technologies due to its use of steel-walled pipes, unlike in water systems where typically they are concrete. “Between magnetic flux leakage technology and ultrasonic, we can get a very accurate and clear representation if there is any degradation to the pressure containment capability of the pipe.”

Sound

Acoustic sensors are often used for pipeline break detection, according to Gil. When a breach occurs, a baseline acoustic signature becomes altered as fluid or gas escapes. Frequently, acoustic monitoring employs fiber optics or other embedded or traveling sensors.

The SmartBall leak detection platform is able to locate pinhole sized leaks in live pipelines. The tool is free-swimming and can complete long inspections  in a single deployment.  Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

The SmartBall leak detection platform is able to locate pinhole sized leaks in live pipelines. The tool is free-swimming and can complete long inspections in a single deployment.
Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

Within the Keystone XL and WSSC infrastructures, a relatively new device, a “smart ball” outfitted with acoustic sensors is floated through the pipelines, often ones not accessible by humans. Dupuis points out that these balls do have limitations as they only detect leaks when the balls float past them. As the ball comes in proximity of a leak, there is a higher confidence of detection, explains Dupuis, adding that they should be used in conjunction with CPM, TransCanada’s primary monitoring system.

Smart balls should not be confused with “PIGs,” or pipeline inspection gauges, another device frequently used by pipeline companies, says Dupuis. While a smart ball flows along the pipeline with the liquid, a PIG is tight-fitting to the pipe.

In a PG&E Current’s article, the company proposes “making about 200 miles of pipeline segments ‘piggable,’ in which an inline inspection tools known as a pig is inserted into a pipeline to gather detailed information.”

Touch

This is a scaled-down version of a state-of-the-art pipeline simulator known as the External Leak Detection Experimental Research (ELDER) test apparatus. It is being used by TransCanada to test the different Cable Based Leak Detection technologies in a unique Joint Industry Partnership with fellow pipeline operator Enbridge and the Governments of Alberta and Canada. Photo credit: TransCanada Corp.

This is a scaled-down version of a state-of-the-art pipeline simulator known as the External Leak Detection Experimental Research (ELDER) test apparatus. It is being used by TransCanada to test the different Cable Based Leak Detection technologies in a unique Joint Industry Partnership with fellow pipeline operator Enbridge and the Governments of Alberta and Canada.
Photo credit: TransCanada Corp.

Pressure changes, temperature fluctuations and abnormal vibrations can also signify issues. According to Gil, TransCanada uses CPM, an industry standard, which provides real-time transit modeling. Temperature, mass flow and density sensors, coupled with complex math algorithms allow for the identification of anomalies.

Fiber optic cables, for example, are used to detect changes in temperature. As a laser travels through the cable, changes in temperature causes the light to scatter differently.

TransCanada is evaluating the use of pressure wave leak detection that is able to detect and locate leaks based on the negative pressure wave. Existing leaks compared with new leaks provide different wave forms that can be detected and differentiated.

Another innovation being developed by a University of Alberta mimics human skin and the sensory cells within. The project extends the concept to wrapping pipelines with a membrane covered in micro-electromechanical strain gauge sensors, which communicate to pipeline operators. The 5 mm sensors would communicate wirelessly about the structural health of pipelines. PG&E has been experimenting with a similar technology of wrapping flexible film with tiny embedded sensors around pipes for real-time ultrasonic wave monitoring.

Smell and Taste

Sensor cables that TransCanada is testing in a unique Joint Industry Partnership with fellow pipeline operator Enbridge and the Governments of Alberta and Canada. Photo credit: TransCanada Corp.

Sensor cables that TransCanada is testing in a unique Joint Industry Partnership with fellow pipeline operator Enbridge and the Governments of Alberta and Canada.
Photo credit: TransCanada Corp.

Detecting hydrocarbons, an organic compound consisting entirely of hydrogen and carbon and present in gas and oil, can be done via “taste” and “smell,” according C-FER Technologies’ Wagg. Vapor-sensing tubes actually capture and transmit vapors to a sampling station where they are subsequently analyzed. If, for example, hydrocarbon vapors are detected, a leak could be causing it. Similarly, other types of gasses could be sniffed out by this type of sampling.

Likewise, cables outfitted with hydrocarbon sensors can react to the detection of hydrocarbons within liquids. A cable can essentially “taste” the surrounding environment in soil or water for the presence of hydrocarbons, which would signify the presence of a leak.

And Don’t Forget Intelligence

Big data and analytics can tie the collected sensor data together to make it useful for predictive maintenance and proactive monitoring.

Intel’s Shahram Mehraban, who has been studying the issue as part of the company’s Internet of Things business, believes the pipeline industry is still in its infancy when it comes to technology innovation. He attributes this to: Moore’s Law still being applicable with more powerful, smaller and less-expensive sensors and edge devices coming to market; the pervasive access to new wired and wireless technology; and advancements in big data and data analytics in order to provide broader and deeper analysis for pipeline monitoring operations.

A small drone powered by Intel Edison used to demonstrate a pipeline monitoring model.

A small drone powered by Intel Edison used to demonstrate a pipeline monitoring model.

And experimentation with sensors, communications and monitoring solutions continues. At the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) 2014, Kevin Williams, a platform architect in Intel’s intelligent platform solutions group, developed a demonstration complete with drones, infrared sensors and gateway communications to illustrate pipeline monitoring. Williams admits that infrared communications to drones is not feasible for real-world environments, but the purpose of the proof of concept for IDF was to showcase how the coupling of technology from sensors to gateways can be innovative within the critical and established pipeline monitoring industry.

The end goal of all of these experiments with existing and new technologies is for economic and environmental good as pipeline monitoring moves from reactive action to proactive predictions, all using combinations of tech-driven senses.

Technologies Mimic the 5 Senses to Monitor Pipelines

Keystone 9C (200 Nikon)Technology advances enable proactive detection of leaks, breaches and ruptures.

In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation reported 623 gas and hazardous liquid pipeline incidents that resulted in 10 fatalities, 47 injuries and an estimated cost of $336 million in property damage. Material, weld and equipment failures represented over 28 percent of the causes, with corrosion and excavation damage accounting for 18.3 and 17.7 percent, respectively, for the years 1994-2013.

In 2010, a fatal natural gas explosion in San Bruno, California, prompted Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) officials to evaluate their existing pipeline monitoring technologies and recently have begun implementing new methods to ensure their pipelines are safer.

Pure Technologies staff insert the PureRobotics tool into a live pipeline in Calgary, Alberta. The tool is able to identify structural deterioration in pipelines of various  materials. Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

Pure Technologies staff insert the PureRobotics tool into a live pipeline in Calgary, Alberta inspect for structural deterioration.
Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

To prevent potentially dangerous and damaging accidents, other organizations such as TransCanada Corp., which is building the Keystone XL pipeline, and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) that serves the Maryland and the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, are employing technologies that essentially see, hear, touch, smell and taste various aspects of their pipelines.

“Pipelines use a primary leak detection system called Computational Pipeline Monitoring (CPM) that uses a wide variety of measurements of the flow, pressure, temperature, density, etc. in the pipeline to determine the operating condition of the pipeline,” wrote Brian Wagg, director of business development and planning at C-FER Technologies, in an email. “These measurements are compared to a real-time model of what the flow conditions should be in the pipeline to determine if there is something unusual happening, such as an over-pressure event or leak.”

According to Wagg, monitoring and leak detection systems “can be installed inside the pipeline, run through the pipeline at intervals, installed outside the pipe in the trench, or be used on vehicles or on aircraft to monitor gas releases into the atmosphere.”

Sight

Helicopters outfitted with laser spectroscopic systems “see” methane gas from the air based on how laser light in methane concentrations reflects back differently to the sensor. PG&E has been testing an airborne, laser-based system for leak detection.

Juan Gil, a manager at TransCanada, says that, while the company uses infrared sensors to detect temperature changes in the pipeline at some of its pump stations, which could mean structural failures, the Keystone XL will instead focus on using flyovers coupled with software analytics in conjunction with cabling with various sensor types.

The PureRobotics platform is a condition assessment tool that identifies structural deterioration in critical pipelines. The system also features inline  video to observe internal pipe conditions. Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

The PureRobotics platform is a condition assessment tool that identifies structural deterioration in critical pipelines. The system also features inline video to observe internal pipe conditions.
Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

In certain situations, visual inspection is still a human’s job. According to Lyn Riggins, spokesperson for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, pipes larger than 55 inches are often inspected by humans, assuming the pipeline can be drained through diversion. But with smaller pipe sizes, the WSSC employs robots to crawl through pipes to allow for remote visual inspection of pipelines.

PG&E also utilizes mini-robots with high-definition cameras, and 3-D cameras that visually maps the outside of pipelines.

While humans and robots may be suited to inspect water systems, interior inspections of oil pipelines are impossible due to oil’s opaque nature, according to Bruce Dupuis, who handles threat management teams at TransCanada.

“It wouldn’t be particularly productive. [A robot] is not going to see through the oil,” Dupuis said. “Even if you diverted flow to a different line, you would have to evacuate product out of the line, which would be a huge logistic nightmare.”

Instead, according to Dupuis, TransCanada uses other technologies due to its use of steel-walled pipes, unlike in water systems where typically they are concrete. “Between magnetic flux leakage technology and ultrasonic, we can get a very accurate and clear representation if there is any degradation to the pressure containment capability of the pipe.”

Sound

Acoustic sensors are often used for pipeline break detection, according to Gil. When a breach occurs, a baseline acoustic signature becomes altered as fluid or gas escapes. Frequently, acoustic monitoring employs fiber optics or other embedded or traveling sensors.

The SmartBall leak detection platform is able to locate pinhole sized leaks in live pipelines. The tool is free-swimming and can complete long inspections  in a single deployment.  Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

The SmartBall leak detection platform is able to locate pinhole sized leaks in live pipelines. The tool is free-swimming and can complete long inspections in a single deployment.
Photo credit: Pure Technologies Ltd.

Within the Keystone XL and WSSC infrastructures, a relatively new device, a “smart ball” outfitted with acoustic sensors is floated through the pipelines, often ones not accessible by humans. Dupuis points out that these balls do have limitations as they only detect leaks when the balls float past them. As the ball comes in proximity of a leak, there is a higher confidence of detection, explains Dupuis, adding that they should be used in conjunction with CPM, TransCanada’s primary monitoring system.

Smart balls should not be confused with “PIGs,” or pipeline inspection gauges, another device frequently used by pipeline companies, says Dupuis. While a smart ball flows along the pipeline with the liquid, a PIG is tight-fitting to the pipe.

In a PG&E Current’s article, the company proposes “making about 200 miles of pipeline segments ‘piggable,’ in which an inline inspection tools known as a pig is inserted into a pipeline to gather detailed information.”

Touch

This is a scaled-down version of a state-of-the-art pipeline simulator known as the External Leak Detection Experimental Research (ELDER) test apparatus. It is being used by TransCanada to test the different Cable Based Leak Detection technologies in a unique Joint Industry Partnership with fellow pipeline operator Enbridge and the Governments of Alberta and Canada. Photo credit: TransCanada Corp.

This is a scaled-down version of a state-of-the-art pipeline simulator known as the External Leak Detection Experimental Research (ELDER) test apparatus. It is being used by TransCanada to test the different Cable Based Leak Detection technologies in a unique Joint Industry Partnership with fellow pipeline operator Enbridge and the Governments of Alberta and Canada.
Photo credit: TransCanada Corp.

Pressure changes, temperature fluctuations and abnormal vibrations can also signify issues. According to Gil, TransCanada uses CPM, an industry standard, which provides real-time transit modeling. Temperature, mass flow and density sensors, coupled with complex math algorithms allow for the identification of anomalies.

Fiber optic cables, for example, are used to detect changes in temperature. As a laser travels through the cable, changes in temperature causes the light to scatter differently.

TransCanada is evaluating the use of pressure wave leak detection that is able to detect and locate leaks based on the negative pressure wave. Existing leaks compared with new leaks provide different wave forms that can be detected and differentiated.

Another innovation being developed by a University of Alberta mimics human skin and the sensory cells within. The project extends the concept to wrapping pipelines with a membrane covered in micro-electromechanical strain gauge sensors, which communicate to pipeline operators. The 5 mm sensors would communicate wirelessly about the structural health of pipelines. PG&E has been experimenting with a similar technology of wrapping flexible film with tiny embedded sensors around pipes for real-time ultrasonic wave monitoring.

Smell and Taste

Sensor cables that TransCanada is testing in a unique Joint Industry Partnership with fellow pipeline operator Enbridge and the Governments of Alberta and Canada. Photo credit: TransCanada Corp.

Sensor cables that TransCanada is testing in a unique Joint Industry Partnership with fellow pipeline operator Enbridge and the Governments of Alberta and Canada.
Photo credit: TransCanada Corp.

Detecting hydrocarbons, an organic compound consisting entirely of hydrogen and carbon and present in gas and oil, can be done via “taste” and “smell,” according C-FER Technologies’ Wagg. Vapor-sensing tubes actually capture and transmit vapors to a sampling station where they are subsequently analyzed. If, for example, hydrocarbon vapors are detected, a leak could be causing it. Similarly, other types of gasses could be sniffed out by this type of sampling.

Likewise, cables outfitted with hydrocarbon sensors can react to the detection of hydrocarbons within liquids. A cable can essentially “taste” the surrounding environment in soil or water for the presence of hydrocarbons, which would signify the presence of a leak.

And Don’t Forget Intelligence

Big data and analytics can tie the collected sensor data together to make it useful for predictive maintenance and proactive monitoring.

Intel’s Shahram Mehraban, who has been studying the issue as part of the company’s Internet of Things business, believes the pipeline industry is still in its infancy when it comes to technology innovation. He attributes this to: Moore’s Law still being applicable with more powerful, smaller and less-expensive sensors and edge devices coming to market; the pervasive access to new wired and wireless technology; and advancements in big data and data analytics in order to provide broader and deeper analysis for pipeline monitoring operations.

A small drone powered by Intel Edison used to demonstrate a pipeline monitoring model.

A small drone powered by Intel Edison used to demonstrate a pipeline monitoring model.

And experimentation with sensors, communications and monitoring solutions continues. At the Intel Developer Forum (IDF) 2014, Kevin Williams, a platform architect in Intel’s intelligent platform solutions group, developed a demonstration complete with drones, infrared sensors and gateway communications to illustrate pipeline monitoring. Williams admits that infrared communications to drones is not feasible for real-world environments, but the purpose of the proof of concept for IDF was to showcase how the coupling of technology from sensors to gateways can be innovative within the critical and established pipeline monitoring industry.

The end goal of all of these experiments with existing and new technologies is for economic and environmental good as pipeline monitoring moves from reactive action to proactive predictions, all using combinations of tech-driven senses.