... How Drones Help Solve Pipeline Problems Before They Become Problems - North American Energy Pipelines

How Drones Help Solve Pipeline Problems Before They Become Problems

Record rainfall and above average snow has caused historic flooding across portions of the United States, with widespread devastation across the upper Mississippi and Missouri River basins serving as stark reminders for increased flood risk in the months ahead.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently released a bulletin predicting that nearly two-thirds of thelower 48 states face an elevated risk for flooding through the spring months, with the potential for major or moderate flooding in 25 states. Other predictions point to unprecedented widespread flooding as we look to the future.

For pipeline owners and operators, the risk is real. An advisory bulletin released in April by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) reminds all owners and operators of gas and hazardous liquid pipelines that severe flooding, river scour (erosion) and river channel migration are the types of unusual operating conditions that can adversely affect the safe operation of a pipeline. Further, these conditions require corrective action and compliance of continuous surveillance of pipelines under federal pipeline safety regulations from PHMSA and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), among others. Complying with the regulations set forth by these organizations helps pipeline companies stay safe, legal, and profitable.

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Fortunately, advancements in technology including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and aerial analytics are transforming pipeline integrity management, making it easier and safer to inspect pipelines and ease compliance requirements.

Shifting to Proactive Issue Prevention

Drones and UAVs have already proven their strategic value for mapping and assessing pipeline conditions, as flyovers can be done autonomously. Surveying route selections, assessing land and environmental impact, monitoring construction activities and inspecting existing lines for leaks and corrosion are necessary functions. Traditionally, gathering this data has been expensive, labor- and time-intensive, and wrought with safety concerns for field teams monitoring miles of pipeline across remote, rugged and often mountainous terrain with accessibility challenges. But that’s no longer the case.

While drones have undeniably transformed the efficiency and safety of pipeline inspections, mapping is just the tip of the iceberg. Today, forward-thinking pipeline construction companies and operators are taking advantage of ultra-high spatial resolution aerial imagery combined with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to power predictive analytics that shift integrity management from a reactive to a proactive strategy. As such, these solutions have become incredibly valuable in the wake of major weather events and flooding.

With more frequent and powerful storms, erosion issues and geohazards are an ever-increasing concern to pipelines. Landslides can cause potentially catastrophic issues, as demonstrated by the 2018 gas pipeline explosion in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which destroyed one home, prompted evacuations of hundreds and closed an interstate highway. Issues like these can be mitigated — and in many cases prevented — through proactive monitoring using aerial analytics and landslide prediction models.

Today, using advanced aerial analytics and UAVs, pipeline construction companies and operators can improve the predictive accuracy of where, when and how geohazards, stormwater and erosion patterns could impact assets. The new generation of aerial technology uses imagery captured by drones with specialized sensors to create full-resolution 2D and 3D maps that produce topography contour lines and help identify challenging areas. Besides providing more solid proof of pre-existing conditions, this advanced technology can help pipeline companies plan the best route and better anticipate issues such as slip potential and identify slope breaker failure points most likely to lead to erosion or other geohazards that could put pipelines at risk.

Comparing analysis before, during and after major weather events, as well as seasonally, are best practices. Owners and operators use models to assess sections along a pipeline right-of-way that are most likely to experience an impact following a major rain event or the beginning of slope movement. Armed with this insight, they can pinpoint specific areas of interest and prioritize and assign personnel and resources to those areas for further inspection, thus greatly increasing efficient use of resources while reducing risk.

River basins and watersheds are also critical areas during heavy perception, snowmelt and flooding. River scour and channel migration may damage a pipeline as a result of additional stresses imposed on the pipe by undermining underlying support soils, exposing the pipeline to lateral water forces and impact from waterborne debris. Proof in point: On Jan. 17, 2015, a breach in the Bridger Pipeline Co.’s Poplar system resulted in spill into the Yellowstone River near the town of Glendive, Montana, releasing an estimated 677 barrels of crude oil into the river and impacting local water supplies. Preliminary reports estimated more than 100 ft of pipeline was exposed on the river bottom, and a release point was near a girth weld.

Aerial analytics can provide accurate volumetric measurements of how much water is in a drainage basin, as well as how much volume is available before overflow becomes an issue. Not only is this invaluable information to municipalities and land planners — enabling them to make better decisions about how much water to release downstream to control inflow into the watershed — but pipeline companies
can also locate where damage or erosion is already occurring, or where there is the highest potential for erosion to occur. Having this insight enables owners and operators to prioritize resources to address the most problematic areas first, addressing issues before they become problems, saving time and costs.

Furthermore, this information becomes invaluable to designing and implementing stormwater best management practices (BMPs) and erosion control. Using software, it is possible to accurately chart things like potential stormwater sources, drainage and slope issues, potential collection points, and more. By using the images captured by drones, pipeline construction companies and property managers can create plans that adapt all of the EPA guidelines and federal regulations for stormwater BMPs.

During periods of heavy stormwater, drones enable operators to get images of pipelines and surrounding area, which can be used to spot problems or identify better strategies or needs for management of stormwater.

The benefits of using aerial analytics for informing stormwater management are numerous and include:

  • Better aerial images with 3D mapping,
    grading and other options available.
  • More affordable than other types of map development.
  • Better accuracy during the planning phase.
  • Ability to consistently monitor regions during and after storms.
  • Remotely monitor areas without having to travel onsite, improving safety for field workers and reducing costs.
Ultra-high-resolution models based on data collected from UAVs

Ultra-high-resolution models based on data collected from UAVs can help operators predict where issues such as propensity for landslides are most likely to occur on a pipeline project.

Looking Ahead

According to the World Economic Forum, digital transformation could unlock approximately $1.6 trillion of value for the oil and gas industry, its customers and society. This value is derived from greater productivity, better system efficiency, savings from reduced resource usage and fewer spills and emissions. UAVs have emerged as a key process improvement for pipeline inspection, transforming the efficiency, value and safety of the entire pipeline lifecycle — from planning and construction, to operations, maintenance and optimization. Today, innovation though cloud platforms, ultra-high spatial resolution aerial imagery, AI and machine learning, predictive analytics and big data are opening up new opportunities to transform pipeline integrity management to a more proactive approach to help reduce risk and accelerate time to value.

Toby Kraft is cofounder and CEO of SolSpec, a spatial analytics company that delivers insightful analytics to major land-use industries including agriculture, oil and gas, renewables and mining.

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