Featured Image credit: Timothy Wildey on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
The natural gas industry relies heavily on its network of pipelines to transmit the product safely and quickly. Despite the safety regulations imposed on the industry, incidents continue to happen, followed by environmental and financial consequences. One way to ensure pipeline integrity is to carry out rigorous monitoring, which is typically done by helicopter inspections. While having seemingly no other alternatives, this method has proven to be far from perfect. One Dutch company has developed a better solution.
The European Gas pipeline Incident data Group (EGIG), which is a group of 17 major European gas transmission system operators, has been tracking pipeline incidents since 1970. According to its recent report, the last three years saw 60 pipeline incidents, all of which resulted in a gas leakage; some leaving people injured or dead. The typical factors behind pipeline incidents are external interferences, corrosion, construction defects, and ground movement, which represent 35%, 24%, 16%, and 13% of all recorded incidents, respectively. According to the organization, external interferences have the most devastating effect. Typical examples of such are groundworks and excavation activities in the direct vicinity of the pipelines, as well as the building of settlements and a phenomenon known as “city encroachment”.
Although operators are required to ensure that various safety measures are in place (including marking the pipes and physically protecting them in vulnerable areas), surveillance remains central to protecting gas pipeline integrity. The total length of the European gas transmission pipeline system in 2013 was 143,727 km. Current inspection methods, favored by the industry, mean that every kilometer must be inspected manually—in the majority of cases, this is being done by a trained specialist flying over in a helicopter, riding along in a car, or simply walking along the pipeline. One is forced to wonder—why, despite the general tech advancement of the oil & gas industry, are current surveillance methods not aided by a technology of scale?“At first, I also found it hard to believe,” says Erik Zoutman, CEO of Orbital Eye’s mother company S[&]T. Orbital Eye, founded and based in The Netherlands, offers tools and services to monitor critical infrastructure, such as transmission pipelines. According to him, the reason behind the current situation is twofold. First of all, although helicopter check-ups are not perfect, they are still a viable option and are accepted as such in the natural gas industry. Dutch authorities have a stake in this too.
As Zoutman puts it, “The Dutch Government will only allow gas transportation if the operator has proper safety measures in place, and helicopter inspections are part of those. If you want to use something else instead, you have to convince the responsible Dutch Inspection Authorities first.”
Several years ago, Orbital Eye started developing a new solution for a more efficient pipeline monitoring, using satellite technology.
“There are two things the Dutch do best in space: producing optical-mechanical instrumentation for Earth observation and applying satellite data on Earth. Doing something intelligent with the satellite data, turning it into information that generates value for the customer—that’s going to boom,” says Zoutman. “Right now, satellite data is mostly used by Science and not by Business, but that is going to turn around quickly. Everybody likes space, but few want to pay for it because they think that space technology is expensive and far-fetched. None of this is true anymore.” According to Zoutman, the growing number of operational satellites only supports this notion.
The data used by Orbital Eye is obtained by the Earth Observation/Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites with high revisit frequencies—Sentinel-1A and Sentinel-1B. They provide images of the territory where the pipelines run, around the clock and regardless of the weather. A proprietary technique developed by the company allows comparing every new image to older ones, thus revealing any changes taking place on the ground.
With this technology in place, field operators can be notified about the possible threats as soon as possible—a tablet can provide inspectors or field engineers with timely warnings about pipeline abnormalities. Through satellite navigation, field operators can be guided to the exact location of the threat. Furthermore, all of this is a fully automated process. This new solution is known as PIMSyS.
“It removes the currently existing information and communication gap between the field and the office, and it is an important productivity tool for our clients,” says Zoutman.
To validate the technology, S&T Corporation partnered with the European Space Agency and Gasunie, a Dutch natural gas infrastructure and transportation company operating in The Netherlands and Germany. Zoutman says: “We talked to them and discovered that they were using helicopters, so we thought they might as well try using satellite data. At first, they didn’t like the idea but we managed to convince them. When they compared the results of their helicopter inspections with our data, they couldn’t believe it.”
Gasunie agreed to test the system for 8 months under operational conditions. The validation project that was exploring the 240 km pipeline route in The Netherlands, proved that PIMSiS offers superior results compared to traditional helicopter monitoring. Where the helicopter reported external interferences for 57% of the locations, PIMSiS reported them for 88%. “We proved that our solution was more accurate, faster and cheaper,” says Zoutman. Gasunie now uses PIMSiS alongside its traditional monitoring methods.
With the help of satellites, pipeline operators have a higher chance of timely noticing activities threatening their assets—according to Zoutman, they can now find out about those in a matter of days or even hours, which is a great improvement compared to monthly helicopter reports. There’s only one aspect when helicopter check-ups cannot be beaten: once the inspector suspects a problem, he can land and take action immediately. “The best combination is to have both the satellite warnings and a car driving to the spot whenever you are notified about something,” says Zoutman. According to his rough estimations, the operators spend thousands of euros per kilometer of pipeline per year, amounting to two billions of euros annually. However, by implementing PIMSyS, these expenses can be cut dramatically. “Actually, money is not central in this discussion. The market is not only looking for cost reduction—it is also looking for a better service and better incident prevention,” Zoutman explains.
New safety solutions are always slow to be accepted and implemented in the industry. When it comes to new, untested technologies, it takes time and effort to convince stakeholders that they will work just as well, if not better, than current standard practices. Meanwhile, the benefits of space technology are starting to receive due attention on the ground, even within a conservative sector like oil & gas. “This market is conservative—that is something that we saw. However, despite initial skepticism, they also see that space technology is getting more mature and less risky for businesses to adopt. When you drive your car using a GPS navigator, you don’t think of it purely as a space technology anymore, although that’s what it once was.”