How do companies monitor and inspect their pipelines?

Pipelines are meticulously monitored and inspected to identify potential issues before they cause an incident. From NASA-like control rooms, to submarine-shaped tools that travel inside pipelines, operators use a wide variety of cutting-edge technologies to monitor pipelines. Those methods are backed up with regular visual inspections – from the ground and air.

Monitoring from the control room

CEPA members have some of the most sophisticated pipeline control rooms in the world.

Just like NASA has mission control in Houston, all transmission pipeline companies have a master control room where pipeline operations are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Advanced computer software programs like those used in airports and space stations create a profile of how every segment of the pipeline performs in normal conditions – flow rate, pressure, and temperature. If sensors in the pipeline detect a change, the pipeline can be inspected, and shut down if necessary.

Some of the innovative technologies used to monitor pipelines include:

Remote sensors that track changes in pressure, flow rate or temperature.

Hyperspectral imagers (specialized video cameras) that can detect evaporated hydrocarbons through hyperspectral imaging. These cameras are sensitive enough to detect extremely low volumes of evaporated hydrocarbons within a two kilometre radius of the camera.

Aerial light detection and ranging imagery created from airborne laser sensors are used to monitor geohazards, such as landslides, earthquakes and river erosion, in real time.

Fiber optic cables installed alongside a new pipeline can help detect tiny leaks by sensing changes of temperature and vibrations caused by flow from a pipe.

SmartBalls, which are placed in the pipeline to travel with the flow and listen for leaks. They have an acoustic data system that can detect small, possibly even pinhole-sized leaks.

Smart membranes that turn the pipe itself into a sensing device. The membranes are wrapped around pipelines, which can sense leaking fluid and signal operators.

Aircraft, like helicopters and drones, are used to scrutinize pipelines from the air.

Specially trained dogs are sometimes used to search for leaks, as their ultra-sensitive noses can detect leaks that machines can’t.

Any changes are immediately transmitted to the control room, setting off alarms.

Control Room

Control rooms are the the eyes and ears of the pipeline system.

Inspecting the inside of the pipeline

Sophisticated technology allows operators to see anything out of the ordinary, like minute cracks or signs of corrosion, from inside the pipe.

Like a small submarine, devices called smart pigs (pipeline inspection gauges) are used for inline inspection. They travel inside a pipeline using ultrasonic technology similar to medical MRIs and monitor the health of the pipeline, diagnose issues such as metal defects, forecast potential challenges and report any issues to the pipeline operator.

The pipeline is filled with a powerful magnetic field as the smart pig passes through. The magnetic field is used to detect metal loss in the pipeline – if there is corrosion, the magnetic field will ‘leak’ out of the pipeline in that area and be detected by the device’s sensors.

Checking the integrity of the pipe

Pipeline operators also regularly conduct integrity digs, which involves excavating a section of buried pipe to clean and examine it. If a defect is found, it is repaired and recoated and the pipe is re-buried. CEPA members conduct thousands of integrity digs every year to examine pipelines for suspected defects and make repairs.

Workers locating pipe

Pipeline workers use technology to locate pipelines.

Workers looking at pipe - Pembina

Visual inspections can help pipeline operators spot anamolies before they become issues. Photo courtesy of Pembina Pipeline Corp.

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