From regulatory compliance to third-party damage prevention, drones are shaking up the $55 billion pipeline industry.

pipeline aerial survey drone

Why Should Pipeline Operators Care About Drones?

Oil and gas pipelines play a crucial role in many aspects of our daily lives. From the fuel we use to power our vehicles and heat our homes to the plastics found in almost every common household product, oil and gas enable many of the modern comforts that we all enjoy. But buried deep underground, pipelines are out of sight and out of mind for most Americans.

For the people who design, construct, and operate these critical pieces of our national infrastructure, pipelines have importance aside from providing the conveniences which are often taken for granted. The pipeline industry provides a multitude of full-time occupations that are required to meet the constant challenges of building, maintaining, and operating pipelines every day. Pipeline industry professionals are increasingly turning to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to help them meet these challenges.

Drones can quickly and autonomously gather an incredible wealth of information to help meet regulatory requirements and mitigate potential threats to pipeline integrity.

Pipelines require a lot of data collection in order to operate smoothly and safely. Surveying planned routes, monitoring construction activities, and inspecting existing lines for leaks and corrosion are all necessary. Traditionally, this data has not been cheap or easy to obtain. UAVs are rapidly changing this by revolutionizing data collection and other labor-intensive tasks. The safety and cost-savings benefits are substantial, but the wide range of data that modern drones can collect is what really has pipeline operators salivating. Drones can quickly and autonomously gather an incredible wealth of information to help meet regulatory requirements and mitigate potential threats to pipeline integrity.

While the capabilities of modern drones are impressive, utilizing UAVs effectively is not so simple. There are many considerations that a pipeline operator must make if they want to be successful. They need to ask important questions, such as: Where is the pipeline located? How long is it? What data do we need to collect?

While some utilities have invested heavily in developing in-house drone programs, many others are relying on third-party service providers. These are made up of UAV professionals who specialize in drone services and drone software. As UAVs are becoming more popular, the opportunity for these professionals and the pipelines they aim to serve is growing every day.

The Current State of the Industry

Performing weekly pipeline inspections is routine for Bill Washek, a pipeline operations supervisor from Oklahoma City. “We fly the entire right-of-way twice a month for aerial inspections, but we have boots on the ground every week. A big part of our budget goes to that.” This is nothing out of the ordinary. Inspections and continual monitoring are a major cost-driver at nearly every stage in the life of a pipeline. Many pipeline industry professionals are hoping that drone technology could be the goose that lays the golden eggs. “The biggest cost is the number of people it takes,” says Bill. “If we could automate inspections, that would save me a bundle.”

With the rapid pace of new home and businesses construction, the lay of the land is always changing…Using drones to quickly and cheaply monitor dynamic sites is an attractive proposition.

Before a pipeline can be built, the entire route must be vetted. Topography, the existence of other utilities, property boundaries – all of these things impact where pipelines may be constructed. Currently, aerial and ground inspections are the best options to assess these factors. In many cases, lines are built to meet demand as people move to an area. With the rapid pace of new home and businesses construction, the lay of the land is always changing. Even after a route has been approved, adjacent construction projects often threaten to encroach on pipeline activity. Keeping track of everything that’s going on near the right-of-way can be a daunting task. Using drones to quickly and cheaply monitor dynamic sites is an attractive proposition - particularly since many pipelines are installed in remote areas that are not easily accessible by foot.

pipeline inspection technology
While building a pipeline is a complex undertaking, the real challenge begins once a pipeline has been constructed. Regulatory standards require frequent inspections of these lines, a task which takes time and resources. Many operators pay pilots to perform aerial inspections using airplanes or helicopters equipped with thermal-sensing cameras. These cameras measure temperature changes along the pipeline in order to detect potential pipeline leaks. The pilots also look for construction activity that may be occurring near the pipeline’s right-of-way.

The biggest threat to pipeline safety in the United States is what’s called “third party damage,” or TPD for short. TPD occurs when someone damages a pipeline that they are not associated with. These types of incidents pose a unique threat because, in many cases, the damaging party does not report it to anyone. Utilizing drones could give operators a heads-up to outside construction activity - one of the biggest causes of TPD.

Another constant threat to pipelines is corrosion. While many efforts are taken to prevent it, corrosion is a natural phenomenon that occurs when steel pipe is placed in an outdoor environment. Coatings are applied to prevent corrosion from happening in the first place, but that is not always enough. Corrosion under insulation (CUI) starts beneath an insulating coating and can be impossible to see with the human eye. New technology allows operators to spot corrosion before it becomes a problem. Special cameras can detect CUI, and these cameras can be attached to drones.

How Drone Surveying is Changing Things

Drone surveying provides many advantages over traditional methods of pipeline inspection. By reducing the need for human interaction, you can improve numerous aspects of the process. Safety, cost, technological capability, speed of deployment – all of these essential factors can be improved by using UAVs.

Drones can also access much tighter spaces and fly closer to the ground more safely than an airplane or a helicopter. And they do it while using a fraction of the fuel.

Safety is a paramount concern for any industrial operation. When you’ve got human lives on the line, there is no room for error. Many pipelines are built in remote areas precisely to mitigate the risk of human interference. Because of this, pipeline routes are not always easily accessible. Geography poses unique threats everywhere in the world, from flooding and fires to landslides and slips. A UAV is basically impervious to these hazards since it flies in the air, out of harm’s way. Drones can also access much tighter spaces and fly closer to the ground more safely than an airplane or a helicopter. And they do it while using a fraction of the fuel.

The EPA estimates that the natural gas industry spends $50 million annually on pipeline inspections. Inspection tasks for pipelines typically require special training. One person can only accomplish so much in a day, so it takes many people to perform all the necessary maintenance tasks required for a pipeline. But what if a single individual could use a drone to do many of these inspection tasks at one time? Or better yet, what if a drone could be programmed to do it autonomously and simply report the data back to the control center?

Another key advantage of using drone surveying is the reduced time it takes for deployment. Trained pilots are in high demand and have limited availability. It can take days or weeks to find someone with the qualifications and the availability to do an unplanned aerial patrol, and even then, the cost still has to be taken into consideration. In contrast, a trained UAV operator can launch a drone and begin collecting data in just a matter of minutes. Especially in a time-crunch, having an inspection-capable drone ready to go could be a real game changer.

How Can Pipeline Operators Take Advantage of Drone Technology?

So what options does a pipeline operator have if they want to utilize drones? For many operators, contracting out UAV work makes the most sense. It’s a good choice for several reasons. There are a growing number of companies that specialize in custom drone services for different industries. Since drones are aerial vehicles, they require special licenses to operate. Getting these licenses takes time. Drone service providers already possess the requisite licenses for flying drones, along with liability insurance. They also have expertise that those who are new to drones do not. A trained drone specialist can help determine exactly which type of drone, sensors and software are necessary to gather the data that is needed.

drone_UAV_pipeline-5 alt="drone UAV program surveying pipeline"
The other option is to develop an in-house drone program. If an operator wants to use drones daily or weekly, or simply requires a level of control that a third-party cannot offer, then it may make sense to take this route. However, this is a time and resource-intensive enterprise. An operator who has no prior experience with drones will probably need to hire a UAV consultant to get started. In addition, a company electing to pursue an in-house UAV program will be responsible for maintaining insurance, licenses and must adhere to strict Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Nevertheless, the rewards can be great. Cost savings and the ability to deploy drones without relying on a third-party provide greater flexibility.

A third option is to develop an in-house drone program but to rent the actual drone hardware. This hybrid solution has its own merits. By renting drones, an operator may be able to avoid obtaining a license and insurance. In addition, new technology can be tested without committing to a large investment. Many of the companies providing drone services also offer drone rentals.

In order to utilize UAV technology for pipeline inspection and surveying purposes, an operator has to many decisions to make and factors to consider. Whether they contract with a third-party or develop an in-house program, a fundamental understanding of drone technology is essential. Drone technology is constantly evolving and bringing new opportunities and new challenges.

Conclusion

Drones are disrupting a number of industries and are poised to continue this trend in the pipeline industry.

Drones are disrupting a number of industries and are poised to continue this trend in the pipeline industry. Having the ability to monitor leaks, corrosion and right-of-way encroachment with one inspection method, while improving safety and saving money sounds like a dream come true. However, anyone who is interested in developing a drone inspection program needs to understand the complexities involved in order to be successful. Contacting an experienced UAV company is a good first step toward getting started.