How pipeline companies are using drones for surveying and safety

In a previous blog post, we learned how planes are used to patrol pipeline right-of-ways and help prevent pipeline leaks. This week we’re taking a look at a different kind of aerial surveillance, this time by unmanned vehicles – drones.

Drones are being used increasingly by pipeline companies to help with everything from surveying and mapping during the route planning process, through to right-of-way monitoring once pipelines are operational.

To learn more, we spoke with Rachel Kohlman, project manager with Meridian Surveys, a professional land surveying and digital mapping company. Meridian has been using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, since 2014, to provide a variety of mapping, surveying and modelling services. Rachel explained that they most often use drones to help pipeline companies with route selection, detailed engineering surveys, construction surveys and as-built surveys (which show the project in its current state at any given time).

“With each of these surveys the typical information provided is topography, existing utilities, location of property boundaries, staking the construction footprint for construction, measuring newly installed pipeline and keeping track of materials during construction,” said Rachel.

Drones are still a relatively new technology, which pipeline companies are increasingly adopting in their daily operations.

Drones are still a relatively new technology, which pipeline companies are increasingly adopting in their daily operations. Photo courtesy of Meridian Surveys.

Creating a three dimensional map

Drone surveys use photogrammetry, which is the process of taking two photos, with an overlap of 60-65 per cent, in order to measure the distance between objects. “The innovations in UAVs and computer programs make it very easy for us to use photogrammetry,” Rachel explained. “We can go out in the field, fly a site, and be ready to start processing as soon as we return to the office. By the next day we can have a three dimensional representation (or point cloud) of the surface.”

Although cameras are used on the drones to create the point clouds, other sensors, such as thermal or light sensors can also be used for other applications such as assessing the health of vegetation along right-of-ways, and searching for hot spots potentially caused by pipeline leaks.

Using drones to protect people and the environment

“UAVs have the ability, through video and aerial photos, to help in scouting and routing,” said Rachel. “They enable us to get a view without having to send crews out on foot. Aside from the associated convenience and time-savings, this could also be a safety issue – for instance where terrain is precarious, around water crossings or where wildlife is prevalent.”

After construction, drones can then be used to scout for warning signs that could indicate a problem, such as hot spots or vegetation changes.

Drones are still a relatively new technology, which pipeline companies are increasingly adopting in their daily operations. You can learn about other innovations in ‘Developing pipeline technology: the challenge and the solution’ and ‘6 pipeline technologies you’ll want to know about’.

The Canadian Energy Pipeline Association represents Canada’s transmission pipeline companies who operate approximately 119,000 kilometres of pipelines in Canada. In 2015, these energy highways moved approximately 1.2 billion barrels of liquid petroleum products and 5.4 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.