February 2020, Vol. 247, No. 2


Smart Pipeline Technologies Boost Safety, Regulatory Compliance

By Nicholas Newman, Contributing Editor

The application of smart pipeline technologies such as automation are bringing major operational and cost benefits to the oil and gas pipeline sector. These smart technologies are helping to maintain integrity of ageing assets, long-distance pipeline assets, unexpected cyber threats and an ageing workforce. 

For example, smart technologies are being used for a range of duties including distributed acoustic sensing, drone monitoring, advanced sensors for in-inline inspection of oil and gas pipelines are improving operational efficiency.  

It is not surprising that Reportlinker.com finds in its report, “Global Pipeline Monitoring Systems Industry,” that market will reach over $1.7 billion by the year 2025.According to Reportlinker.com; the leading markets for such smart technologies will be North America, followed by Europe, Japan and emerging countries including the Middle East and Africa. 

Among the providers of these technologies include ABB Group; Atmos International Inc.; BAE Systems PLC; ClampOn AS etc. For example, ABB has been involved in several large export pipeline projects and distribution pipeline projects delivering automation, safety, telecoms, security and electrical systems. The most recent large example is the TANAP pipeline connecting Georgia to Greece via Turkey, part of the Southern Gas corridor. 

“Technologies including AI have a major role to play in helping overall pipeline operations and maintenance; covering leak detection, corrosion monitoring and equipment monitoring.  It is also critical in helping to safeguard reliability and security of an operator’s infrastructure,” said Ian Holden, O&G Technology Manager at ABB. 

In addition, pipeline operators are facing ever tougher operating regulations, which require frequent visual inspection of infrastructure for leaks and corrosion. The application of artificial intelligence, sensors, smart instrumentation, analytical software and other smart technologies are becoming essential in replacing an earlier manually intensive, time-consuming and potentially inaccurate human-led field processes. 

 Because of such applications, the pipeline industry is achieving improvements in productivity and efficiency, whilst meeting its ever-tougher regulatory requirements. Amongst the companies investing in these technologies include Enbridge, TransCanada and National Grid.  

Benefits of Automation 

Automation brings with it the ability for monitoring pipeline integrity issues throughout the entire day and night. For example, if the pressure drops, this may show a leak has taken place. In addition, sensor information can help identify any structural concerns to do with the pipeline walls, before any serious leak or explosion occurs. Also, ultrasonic and acoustic sensors can detail any abnormal sound waves that might suggest a crack in the pipeline wall has taken place. Similarly, magnetic sensors to not only determine the change in pipeline wall thickness, perhaps caused by corrosion. 

In addition, Internet of things enabled sensors cannot only identify the first phases of potential damage, but also identify its location and seriousness of its nature. Such sensor information can provide the control room with real-time data, thus reducing any delays for deciding and determining what action needs to be taken, thus reducing potential losses and contamination caused by a leak. Ian Holden says, “As leak detection is perhaps the most critical system on any hydrocarbon pipeline operators now utilise more than one technology and ABB have provided more than one detection method on single pipelines.”  

In the past, maintenance strategies were based on a reactive approach, but today because of smart pipeline technologies it is possible for operators to take a proactive maintenance strategy approach. Such, predictive maintenance strategies are based on the collection of data by sensors monitoring pipeline integrity and functioning conditions over time. Once the data is collected and processed, any future operational failures can even be predicted and thus prevented using algorithmic modelling techniques. This means preventative maintenance can take place to see a section of pipeline before it is likely to fail, thus avoiding any expensive unplanned shutdowns of the pipeline system. 

Operational Simulations

Making use of simulation technology, based on a virtual model of the pipeline network, it is possible to discover, what really happens at each point inside your gas network. Since the virtual modal is used to predict the impact of various operational scenarios on different sections of the network. Then also determine possible problems and their likely root causes. Also, observe immediately all effects of operator actions on gas transportation, gas quality tracking, leak detection.

Today an increasing number of pipeline operators are using drones to inspect their networks from the air. Such drones collect a huge amount of data using installed optical, infra-red and thermal cameras. Once the data is collected, it is automatically using artificial intelligence and cloud computing to create useful information for control room decision makers to act on. 

For example, pipeline operators use software to combine the images collected by drone, thus creating high-resolution vegetation maps that detect plant kill-off zones, which may show a leak. In addition, thermal imagery of pipeline routes is being used to find hotspots, which may show defects in pipeline insulation or leaks invisible to the human eye.  

Data Collection 

Ian Holden said, “Drones are also being used more and more for pipeline security and event investigation purposes.” 

It is possible, that pipeline operators will adopt in the future autonomous drone technology, which is being pioneered in the offshore wind sector. Here drones follow automated flight paths with no human pilot to carry out inspection tasks. Unfortunately, drones in the US are currently required to fly within the visual line of site of the operator. 

The application of smart technology enables automatically for companies to process the data collected by pipeline sensor networks and other resources including sensors and aerial drones.  

Because of such tools, it is possible to understand better how a pipeline reacts to different conditions, such as structural loads, weather changes, soil characteristics, moisture and pH levels. Such information is useful in the future proofing of new pipelines, to reduce likely operational hazards. In addition, equipping a pipeline that has been in service for many decades with a sensor net can provide valuable data to validate integrity for future safe operations.  

For instance, the Columbia Pipeline Group implemented a virtualised PlantPax process control system to share asset information across the company. As a result, the company achieved 99.5% of its compression fleet and saved $2.14 million in maintenance costs according to Rockwell Automation in 2019. 

For pipeline operators, being able to respond to fluctuations in market demand commodity prices, is an essential part of their job. Here are several ways in which smart pipeline technology is facilitating improvements in operational flexibility, such as altering the flow rate, route and even destination of the commodity. Examples of smart technology tools in use include:  

  • A distributed control system (DCS) enables the sharing of information across all facilities, enabling agile and accurate decision making.
  • A supervisory and data acquisition system (SCADA) enables operational functionality to connect seamlessly many different systems including pumping stations, compressors and terminals.
  • Premier Integration merges controller programming, device configuration and maintenance activities into a single software environment. The result is better controller-to-device integration, which when adjusting delivery routes, can simplify configuration and reduce start-up time.

Maintenance, Reliability 

Updating pipeline operations can enable control room decision-makers to better resolve a series of day-to-day maintenance, reliability and safety challenges. It is uncommon for pipeline networks over their entire lifespan to fail to standardize the control tools that are installed, because, each type of equipment needs in its own specific set of expertise and components. 

To tackle this problem, at the time of systems upgrade, it is best to standardise all equipment and components, in order to improve operational reliability. Also, it can reduce the amount of time required to train up new staff to operate and maintain pipeline assets. 

The installation of new smart technologies including sensors means it is possible to better collect process and make decisions. For example, such monitoring can predict when equipment needs to be serviced, thus preventing a potential failure. Amongst the firms providing predictive maintenance services to the industry are IBM, C3 AI and MapR Technologies. 

One thing is clear, Holden said, “from a technology perspective we can already see more pipeline operators installing dedicated fibre optic infrastructure, hosting applications not just for automation system communications but also fast, accurate leak detection and security threat detection.”

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