- 10 Nov 2021
- Patrick Ryan
- Multi-Mission Aircraft
Have you ever thought you could have a large, hazardous pipeline underneath or near your neighbourhood? If so, you probably wondered “How is the pipeline industry keeping these pipes safe?” Patrick Ryan ‘unearths’ the truth of how one part of this industry, the Pipeline Patrol of Aerial Work aviation, is part of that safety net, ensuring those critical lines are safe and effective.Back to Articles
Of all the different land, ground and sea personnel and equipment hard at work across the global energy grid, manned and unmanned aircraft are probably near the top of the list of platforms that ensure energy is delivered from the drilling rig to your home safely.
Governments around the globe require oil, gas, and chemical pipeline operators to conduct periodic inspections to detect risks to both the network and the general public. In addition, the possibilities of natural disasters, security threats, and product theft require even greater pipeline monitoring diligence.
With more than 2,000,000 miles (3,218,690km) of pipeline in over 100 countries worldwide, the more traditional ground methods of inspection, survey, and repair are proving to be both slow and costly. Therefore, with the unique capabilities and reach of the Aerial Work aviation sector, pipeline operators can leverage this air power to ensure their networks are flowing smoothly without worry.
The specialised group of Aerial Work aviators and aircraft dedicated to this mission is ‘Pipeline Patrol.’ Pipeline Patrol provides aerial pipeline monitoring services that focus on quality, accurate inspections with timely detailed reporting to aid pipeline operators. Their focus is to protect the integrity of the pipeline operator’s strip of land (known as ‘Right-of-Way’ or ROW) and the pipes laid there.
Pipeline Transportation 101
Starting with the big picture, the end-user of aerial Pipeline Patrol services is the Pipeline Transportation industry sector. Pipelines transport almost all the natural gas and nearly two-thirds of all hazardous liquids (including chemicals, crude oil, and refined petroleum). Most of these pipelines are underground and privately owned by pipeline companies, rather than gas and oil production companies (e.g., BP, Shell, etc.). When it comes to this, there are three significant types of transportation structures aerial Pipeline Patrols monitor:
Natural Gas Distribution: Natural gas distribution consists of pipeline networks used to ship natural gas from transmission pipelines to private and commercial customers.
Natural Gas Transmission and Storage: Natural gas transmission and storage involve moving natural gas from its sources to the local companies operating the distribution network. Included are storage facilities and pump stations.
Hazardous Liquid Pipelines and Tanks: Hazardous liquid pipelines and tanks entail transporting crude oil to refineries or refined petroleum products (e.g., gasoline or diesel fuel) to product terminals and airports.
Because Mother Nature likes to corrode and shift both natural and man-made objects, it’s ever more critical that pipeline transportation companies track and repair the condition of every part of their naturally exposed infrastructure to ensure nothing leaks out!
Again, many regulatory agencies require utility organisations to inspect and repair their infrastructure quickly because of the dangers associated with these pipelines and facilities that could adversely affect both humans and the environment. The general industry standard and regulatory requirement for inspections ranges from an inspection every three weeks up to 26 inspections per year and require a detailed examination and assessment of each mile/km of pipeline.
More than Monitoring
What does the aerial Pipeline Patrol sector do regarding inspecting pipes? The general or obvious answer is the routine use of aircraft (both manned and unmanned) to inspect and monitor above and below ground pipelines from the air.
However, there’s much more to the term ‘Patrolling’ than generally ‘eyeballing’ a pipeline. Aerial Pipeline Patrollers are trained and equipped to accomplish many specific technical tasks associated with a pipeline’s lifecycle, i.e., they range from pre-construction to post- decommissioning environmental studies.
Today’s aerial Pipeline Patrol companies routinely use aircraft rigged with sensors and cameras to survey oil and gas pipelines, providing pipeline owners with a comprehensive checkup on an asset’s health. In addition, these companies report back to clients with information regarding pipeline leaks and possible external threats and provide updated mapping and other visual data.
Some of the specific tasks Pipeline Patrol aircraft and crews conduct are:
Erosion and Settlement Inspection: Patrols look for any erosion issue that could damage the line, including failed Best Management Practices (BMP) structures, streams running through the ROW, or erosion due to steep terrain. Additionally, they look for holes or trench settlements within ROW corridors, common on newly constructed pipelines.
ROW Encroachment Inspection: Patrols look for construction equipment working on or near the ROW corridors, surveying or staking activity, and agriculture/landowners working on or near the pipeline owner’s ROW area.
Leak Detection: Last-but-not-least, the important task whereby Pipeline Patrol crews’ leading task is to detect deadly pipeline leaks. Pipeline leak detection determines if, and in some cases where, a leak, small or big, has occurred in the energy grid.
Benefits of Pipeline Patrol
As mentioned before, ground patrolling thousands of miles or kilometers of pipelines can be costly, time- consuming, and dangerous, depending on the environment. The unique benefits aerial Pipeline Patrol provides are:
More Visibility: Aerial patrols can cover more territory and reach remote areas which are difficult to access vs. ground patrols. Plus, aerial patrols at the same time can provide 3D information regarding ROW and pipelines conditions.
Cost-Efficient: Compared to the cost of ground monitoring, aerial patrols and leading-edge technology save time, money, and manpower to mitigate many ground-based logistical obstacles.
Advanced Mapping: With advanced aerial sensors and analytical tools, aerial patrols can create 3D maps or models of a surveyed area. Compared to ground patrols, aerial patrols can produce a larger volume of data and comparable quality.
Increased Productivity: Advancements in aerial real- time monitoring technology, data collection, and processing have led to significant growth in productivity regarding finding, reporting, and fixing safety issues.
Environment & People Protection: Again, aerial patrols mitigate the risk of sending ground personnel over challenging terrain and in adverse conditions 24/7. Plus, it mitigates intruding into the environmentally sensitive areas that some pipelines traverse.
Tools of the Trade
Like any complex undertaking, many manned and unmanned fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft support aerial pipeline operations. Aircraft and technology are selected for individual tasks based on their suitability for the task and their cost-effectiveness.
When it comes to manned aircraft, the primary class is light GA fixed-wing aircraft, i.e., from single-engine to twin-engine and light helicopters, i.e., with piston or turbine engines.
Regarding fixed-wing aircraft, these provide an excellent, cost-effective method for patrolling vast areas. Fixed- wing aircraft can cover large territories quickly and meet
the technical requirements for many pipeline patrols. In addition, fixed-wing pipeline patrols can provide coverage of areas requiring immediate ROW access in the case of pipeline leaks or damage.
Even though many makes and models of aircraft are used in Pipeline Patrol operations, the following platforms can be seen today regularly around the world conducting routine monitoring:
Helicopters, meanwhile, are one of the most effective methods of aerial utility and pipeline patrol. They offer excellent visibility, the ability to fly low and slow, and hover and land if needed. In addition, the helicopter’s ability to land immediately to evaluate leaks, washouts, or other activity near the ROW is a valuable assessment and prevention tool. It offers more immediate availability to problem situations and a much better ‘human-in-the- loop’ view than other aircraft.
Like fixed-wing aircraft, the following helicopters can be seen today around the skies performing regular inspections:
With the introduction of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or Drone) technology, this new aviation capability is multiplying in all corners of the pipeline inspecting and monitoring sector. Currently, unmanned aircraft are not utilised or deployed at the same level as manned aircraft because of regulatory and airspace restrictions. However, their application into other close-quarter aerial observation tasks has expanded the ‘menu board’ of aerial Pipeline Patrol services.
One of the leading benefits small or micro utility UAVs provide is the ability to inspect even closer. UAVs provide the capability to get an in-depth localised area view of a structure from an elevated position. In case of a hazardous emergency, UAVs can provide a close-up sense of scale and a different perspective from the platform vs. those at ground level.
Even though the UAV manufacturing sector is currently exploding with many makes and models of platform, here is a small sample of some of the types of UAVs that pipeline inspectors and monitors are operating:
Systems & Equipment
Relating to the kit Pipeline Patrols utilise, this sector relies on unique, leading-edge, and sophisticated systems like other Aerial Work sectors. Methods of detection include visual, infrared, and laser technology after pipeline construction, and leak detection during service.
Outside of using a ‘Mark One Eyeball’, some of the primary types of systems and monitoring methods you’ll see utilised by Pipeline Patrol crews (to include the unmanned sector) are:
Laser Aerial Leak Detectors: Laser Aerial Leak Detectors are sensors mounted onboard an aircraft capable of detecting parts-per-million levels of methane gas at ground level.
GIS Videography: GIS Videography is the technical process of taking videos in Ultra-HD with geo- referenced overlays, including GIS centerline data as well as a host of other references. Additionally, GIS Videography can provide augmented reality to aid in specialised pipeline projects.
Aerial Imagery: Aerial Imagery or Aerial Photography uses specialised digital cameras to analyse the status of a pipeline grid. Aerial imagery methods consist of oblique photographs, photogrammetry, and orthophotos.
Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR): Airborne Lidar systems can capture high-resolution long linear ground features such as pipelines and identify any safety issues using 3D data.
Infrared (IR) Inspections: Infrared (IR) thermography measures temperature variances of a component as heat (i.e., thermal radiation) flows through or from a pipeline.
The bottom line is that besides the aircraft, Aerial Patrol technology and tools are critical in supporting pipeline operators regarding ROW certification, project planning, maintenance, required structure counts, and more.
When it comes to who provides such critical aerial Pipeline Patrol services, the market generally consists of small regionalised manned and unmanned aircraft businesses with minimal staff and fleet size.
The general service model of these firms is that they offer patrols with both visual and sensor inspection capabilities. Additionally, they provide preliminary route studies, route low altitude waiver coordination, and near-real-time custom reports per customer specifications. In some cases, they will provide quick- reaction assistance during emergencies and natural disasters.
As an example, here is a small sample of the many types of businesses that provide such aerial Pipeline Patrol services:
Turning the Tap Off
As you can see, keeping the energy flowing safely from a vast drilling rig to your home requires regular and routine technical monitoring. To meet this challenge, the aerial Pipeline Patrol sector is the perfect Aerial Work provider to support the pipeline transportation industry sector, especially in inspecting and monitoring long stretches of hazardous, high-volume pipelines.
With ever more pipelines being laid and current pipelines facing the natural process of wear and tear, the demand for aerial Pipeline Patrols will not diminish. Also, with the introduction of UAV technology, the new capabilities and services the aerial Pipeline Patrol community can provide will expand exponentially.
With that, you can expect aerial Pipeline Patrol service providers and their dedicated crews will continue to ‘Fly the Line’ for many years to come to keep our neighbourhoods safe and warm in the winter months!
Read more about Aerial Works Aviation on our Multi-Mission Aircraft Hub