By Bradley Kramer
High above a pipeline right of way may not be the first place you look for evidence of an integrity management program. Nevertheless, hundreds of feet in the air fly the propellered prophets of pipeline prognostication.
Aerial monitoring companies, such as Synodon Inc. and Immersive Video Solutions LLC (IVS), use helicopters rigged with sensors and cameras to survey oil and gas pipelines, providing asset owners a comprehensive checkup on asset health. These companies report back to clients with information regarding pipeline leaks and possible external threats, as well as providing updated mapping and other visual data.
In the instance of leak detection, there are only a few methods available to oil and gas pipeline operators — the three main ones are ground sampling, aircraft-based sampling and remote monitoring — according to Adrian Banica, president and CEO of Synodon, based in Edmonton, Alberta. For ground sampling, someone physically walks along the right of way with a hand sensor to detect leaks. Aircraft-based sampling uses those same sensors to sample the area by flying over at very low altitude. There are two primary methods of remote monitoring, which use either lasers or infrared.
Synodon’s realSens technology uses infrared cameras to detect hydrocarbons and determine whether there is a leak. The company recently completed testing with the technology for use on crude oil pipelines. The company has been using realSens on gas pipelines for the past three years.
Synodon adapted realSens from space instrumentation that detects global methane emissions, Banica says. The infrared cameras are able to detect small amounts of hydrocarbons at ground level. The realSens cameras were designed to detect gases, but Synodon’s technicians theorized that they could be used to detect leaks in liquids pipelines as well. Evaporating liquids create vapors, which appear on the sensors like gases. The company confirmed its theory by studying petroleum crude in lab tests over the last year.
“The principle is pretty straightforward,” Banica says, explaining that gases and vapors have their own thumbprint from the light the molecules absorb in the atmosphere. The realSens instrument “detects sunlight reflected from the ground and captures the data. If there are any gases along the path, they will color the sunlight in their own specific way.”
If there is a leak, the instrument will detect it by that specific color. For gas leaks, the realSens tool can detect as little as 100 to 200 cubic feet per hour. For liquids, the instrument can detect as little as 5 barrels per day (bpd) of less volatile crude products and a fraction of a barrel per day for more volatile products (e.g., gasoline).
In addition to leak detection, Synodon provides a host of other integrity management services, Banica says. The company also collects visible imagery and provides GPS data. Synodon reports on external threats, such as nearby construction sites, terrain details, such as slope around river crossings, and population density, counting houses to see how many people live near a pipeline.
IVS takes a different approach in delivering data. The company provides 360-degree viewer-controlled video that allows the user to look around as if they’re onboard the helicopter, says Kenn Kadow, principal at IVS, based in Anchorage, Alaska. The company also offers aerial LiDAR/360 services.
“We tie the immersive imagery to GPS and other meta data, including our clients’ GIS information,” he says. “The imagery can be placed on the Web for support of cloud-based project management needs, linked to Google Maps or utilized in several platform-based applications.”
The viewer-controlled video allows a wide variety of users to inspect the pipeline corridor, Kadow says, citing as examples the environmental, engineering, field and other project teams, as well as subcontractors, the public and other stakeholders.
“Everyone can take their mouse and look around,” he says. “This leads to better discussions, as everyone’s working from a common understanding of the issue or location. Pipelines tend to be in remote locations, and there are also considerations that may fall outside the [right of way] and couldn’t be seen through a ground survey.”
Aerial monitoring gives stakeholders the bird’s-eye view, encompassing the entire terrain along a pipeline right of way.
While airplanes are sometimes used for aerial monitoring flights, helicopters are more common carriers for the sensing technology and cameras.
Synodon is strictly a technology provider and doesn’t actually fly the helicopters. Instead, Banica says, the company hires pilots as needed. This allows Synodon to provide its services worldwide, as it is not tied to a fleet of vehicles in one locale.
“We provide services to pipeline companies,” he says. “Depending on what it is, a gas pipeline for instance could be out in the countryside and may only be inspected for leaks once a year. In more urban areas and places where gas pipelines are close to populated areas, they are typically inspected once a quarter. For liquids pipelines, it could be anywhere from once a year to once a month, depending on how aggressive the company is in minimizing risk.”
Without being limited to a specific range, the company can ship a sensing unit and use helicopters anywhere in world, Banica says. Synodon currently operates primarily in western Canada and the United States, but the company is marketing its services in Mexico, Brazil, China, Europe and elsewhere.
The realSens unit is about 3x2x2 ft in dimension and weighs about 230 lbs, including a 2-liter liquid nitrogen tank, which is used to cool the heat-sensitive instrument. The sensor attaches to a helicopter within 30 minutes and is rated for eight hours of operation with a full cooling tank.
The IVS spherical cameras are similarly compact and can be attached to a variety of ground-based vehicles in addition to helicopters, providing added versatility.
Aerial monitoring plays an important role in maintaining pipeline safety, Banica says. A company that provides the type of services as does Synodon consolidates the integrity management supply chain, providing multiple data sets for a more economical price.
As an essential component of an effective asset management program, aerial monitoring provides a wide-angle, all-encompassing look at the pipeline corridor, Kadow says. This type of geospatial surveying allows owners to measure changes, label assets and assign linked documents and other environmental program management processes, helping operators comply with regulatory mandates and maintain a high safety standard while reducing trips to the field.
The increased scrutiny of oil and gas pipelines within the past decade has increased interest in aerial monitoring services, according to both Banica and Kadow. New governmental regulations in North America are forcing operators to increase integrity management initiatives, and aerial monitoring is becoming a more popular option.
“The uptick in interest started with San Bruno and Enbridge,” says Banica, referring to the Pacific Gas & Electric gas pipeline explosion in California and Enbridge’s Line 6B leak in Michigan, both in 2010. “Those incidents were industry-defining, watershed moments in the United States, which shook the industry to the core. Congress started to pay more attention and get aggressive with pipeline safety.”
Banica says there was a paradigm shift in how the public perceived the pipeline industry after those events. Thereafter, every pipeline failure made news and increased public scrutiny. The industry has been looking for better ways to handle asset management, and Banica says aerial monitoring provides the way forward. However, as with any new technology, it takes time to gain widespread acceptance.
“There is a little bit of that earning of stripes period,” he says. “The oil industry is very ingrained in its ways and tends to be conservative. It takes quite a bit of proof before they will adopt certain technology and methodologies. When we first brought realSens to market, they listened politely, but they were not willing to take on the risk. We’re starting to see some nuggets of traction, as some companies buy in to the fact that we’re proven.”
Banica hopes the adoption curve becomes steeper over the next few years, as more companies start using the technology.
As governmental regulations continue to require pipeline companies to employ the best available technology to maintain integrity, Kadow says IVS and companies like it will continue to develop new tools for asset tagging, integrating client data, adding measurement tools and other features to the company’s services.
“With emerging technologies,” he says, “there’s a need to respond to the user’s needs.”
As aerial monitoring companies continue to expand integrity management services to the oil and gas industry, helicopters rigged with high-tech instrumentation will provide an all-seeing eye from the sky.