Feature Story

Oil and the Smart Pipe

by Scott Gurvey

Oil and the Smart Pipe

The Internet of Things has led to the development of technologies to monitor oil pipelines remotely, providing operators with the ability to detect potential problems before they develop.

The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline has been one of the most controversial of energy issues since it was first commissioned in 2010. The new pipeline, actually the final phase of a four phase project of Calgary based TransCanada Corp., would double existing capacity to move oil extracted from Canadian tar sands in Alberta to refineries in Texas. Critics like Friends of the Earth complain the pipeline would “carry one of the world’s dirtiest fuels”. Environmentalists say production of tar sands oil means increased carbon dioxide emissions, water use and chemical contamination when compared to other oil sources and to date the U.S. government has not approved construction.

Pipeline safety is also an issue in the Keystone debate. Even though moving oil through pipelines is generally considered safer than the alternatives of rail or truck transport, the number of pipeline accidents reported each year remains “unacceptable” according to James Stafford, the editor of Oilprice.com. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports more than 62,000 barrels of oil were spilled in 703 incidents in 2014 alone.

Preventing spills has traditionally been a question of frequent, costly inspections. Inspections which have often failed to detect small amounts of corrosion, metal loss or tiny cracks which later result of major breaks. That is changing now in great part because of new technologies being developed for the Internet of Things.

These remote monitoring solutions, often called Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems, can provide operators with the ability to detect problems and intervene, taking action before a major fault event occurs.

The latest IoT technologies permit the low cost placement of sensors and other monitoring equipment along the pipeline, capable of transmitting status information in real time.  Stafford says “there seems to be a sea change in the pipeline industry…. Pipeline companies will see dollars saved by using cost-effective monitoring systems to reduce pipeline leaks.”

Enter the Smart Pig

Robotic instruments, known as intelligent or “Smart Pigs” (The original pigs were made from straw wrapped in wire and used for cleaning. They made a squealing noise while traveling through the pipe, sounding to some like a pig squealing, which gave pigs their name) can now be deployed to both clean and inspect the pipeline from the inside, reporting its progress and findings contemporaneously often without stopping the flow of product. The result is more frequent inspections and the ability to dispatch repair crews to a location when needed, rather than tying them up making labor intensive inspections.

The U.S. DoT maintains a fact sheet designed to guide the industry on the use of smart pigs to make in-line inspections of pipeline systems.

The smart pigs collect great volumes of information, and IoT technologies allow oil companies to both retrieve and analyze that data in a timely manner. The Canadian communications company Telus provides oil pipeline monitoring and management services using wireless network connectivity to collect information on pipeline pressures and temperatures and pump station status. These stations are often located in remote locations and physical surroundings where manual “meter reading” is difficult.

Cloud Analytics

Toronto based Fox-Tek offers an alternative, “pig-less” approach, placing a series of sensors on the outside of the pipeline. Fiber optic sensors are also employed to detect bends, strains and stress. These sensors may be able to detect small cracks that the smart pigs miss.      Another innovation harnesses the “cloud” to bring computing power in the form of a data analytics package. The smart pig scans generate such massive amounts of data that it often takes months to analyze. Cloud based analytic software can reduce the massive amounts of raw data to graphs charts and diagrams summarizing what a pipeline operator most needs to know about temperature, pressure, rates of corrosion and even geological events which can effect pipeline safety.

The scaling ability of cloud computing allows the data analysis to proceed rapidly without incurring unacceptable cost. The effect is to use smart software to detect small problems before they grow into big ones.

Enter the Drones

Aerial observations have long been an element of pipeline safety inspections. Helicopters have been equipped with laser spectroscopic systems to detect leaks of both product and methane gas; infrared sensors to detect potential structural failures and to record pictures for visual inspections.

Now the development of intelligent drone vehicles, connected using IoT technologies, promises to provide additional utility for visual pipeline inspection at a lower cost. At the 2014 Intel Developer Forum, the company’s Kevin Williams demonstrated a drone with infrared sensors and gateway communications capability for pipeline monitoring.

The drone not only gathers data from its onboard sensors, it is also capable of operating autonomously when positioned over sectors of the pipeline where network connectivity is not possible. In these circumstances, the drone records the data and continues its inspection. When it reaches a section of the pipeline where connectivity is possible it establishes a connection for transmits the data it has previously acquired.

Transporting oil is always going to be a business requiring considerable care with an emphasis on safety. But the new technologies promise to have a positive impact on both the economics of pipeline operations and their environmental impact as they allow the industry to move from a position of reacting to problems after they arise to one of proactive prediction of impending problems in time to take remedial steps to prevent them from occurring.