Pipeline Big Brother? 4 ways technology helps companies ‘see’ underground

This is the fourth post in CEPA’s “pipeline innovations” blog series.  

Control Room

How do companies know what’s happening with pipelines when they’re buried underground?

Well, pipeline companies basically play Big Brother. Pipelines are monitored 24-7 from control rooms, and thanks to technology, control room technicians are able to understand and respond to what’s happening underground from hundreds of kilometres away.

How? That’s where technologies like Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems come in. SCADA system software gathers critical information from the pipeline and alerts technicians if there’s a problem.

“SCADA control centres are the nerve centres for pipeline operations and ensure oil and gas is moved via pipeline from point A to B safely and efficiently,” explained Kelly Doran, an industry solution architect with Schneider Electric, a company that develops SCADA control system software.

Advancements in SCADA-system technology have helped pipeline companies continuously improve their Big Brother style surveillance. With Doran as our guide, we’re going to tell you about four ways this technology is improving pipeline monitoring.

1. Sophisticated sensors

SCADA systems collect information such as temperature, flow rate and pressure from sophisticated sensors located along the pipeline route and send that information (sometimes through satellite) back to the control room. If the system detects something abnormal, technicians are notified and can manage flow and shut down the pipeline from the control room when necessary.

Doran explained that improved telecommunications tools are helping information get to control rooms faster, and better sensor technology is making the information more accurate. For example, fiber optic cables can be installed with new pipelines, providing faster communication. Fiber is also being used as an alternative method for leak detection and can warn the control room when third-party equipment drives on top of or is digging near a buried pipeline. This helps companies prevent damage from third parties before it occurs.

2. Video surveillance

What would Big Brother be without video surveillance? In the case of pipelines, video cameras are doing a lot more than watching.

“Video cameras, once used only for security monitoring, are being fitted with hydrocarbon sensors for leak detection as well as temperature monitoring to alarm (the control room) when monitored temperatures exceed normal values,” explained Doran.

3. Alarms 

An integral part of any SCADA system is its ability to notify the control room if there’s a problem.

“Alarms are used to inform controllers of pipeline events that may need attention. Alarms flash, generate audible noise and use colour to indicate the priority of response needed,” Doran said. “Responses vary from acknowledgement (with no action), notifying maintenance, to invoking emergency procedures.”

These sophisticated alarm systems are always improving. For example, advancements have led to “more intelligent alarm handling, resulting in fewer, (but) more meaningful alarms,” Doran explained.

4. What’s next? Drones? 

Well, maybe.

“Domestic drones or driverless vehicles have the potential to provide continuous surveillance for third-party intrusion and leak detection along pipelines’ right-of-ways and other critical infrastructures,” Doran said.

He explained that information collected from these devices could likely be configured to feed into the SCADA system.

Continuous improvement 

By continuously improving the way pipelines are monitored, companies are improving their ability to identify and respond to risks before they turn into incidents.

“Consistently adapting the SCADA system to meet new challenges and incorporate evolving best practices relative to pipeline integrity is essential to ensure the safety of the public and the environment,” stated Doran.

Want to learn about more technologies that are improving pipeline safety? Check out these other posts in our pipeline innovations blog series:

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 115,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2013, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Our members transport 97 per cent of Canada’s daily natural gas and onshore crude oil from producing regions to markets throughout North America.