How to Achieve Cost-Effective Pipeline Monitoring with Satellite Technologies

Potential Pipeline Route Middle East

Elevation 1 DSM for a subset of the study area used to assist pipeline planning, in colourised and shaded relief form. The DSM is derived from stereo Pléiades satellite imagery for a potential pipeline route in the Middle East.

Author: Michael Hall, Senior Geologist, Airbus Defence and Space

The global pipeline network allows the energy market to flourish, with pipelines presenting one of the safest means of transportation when responsibly operated and appropriately maintained. However, throughout a pipeline’s lifecycle, cost-effective tools are required to enable informed, timely decisions to maximise safety and productivity. The challenges within a pipeline’s lifecycle range from planning an optimised, efficient pipeline route and overseeing the environmental impact of construction works, to monitoring pipeline stretches or identifying potential third-party threats during a pipeline’s operational phase. Satellite-based technology and the availability of highly responsive new satellite services now offers operations access to new, highly precise and timely intelligence tools which can support the planning and monitoring of valuable pipeline infrastructure.

Remote Technologies

A number of satellite providers give oil and gas operators flexible access to a range of high-resolution and wide-swath satellite images. In most cases, fine detail is required to monitor pipelines and identify where maintenance work needs to be carried out. Airbus Defence and Space’s Pléiades constellation offers one of these very high-resolution sensors, providing 50-cm resolution imagery products. The Pléiades constellation consists of twin sensors, which are orbiting the earth 180 degrees apart – allowing daily revisit rates. This is the ideal tool when timely, up-to-date or regular information is required.

When a full pipeline corridor needs to be covered, for example to see activities in areas surrounding infrastructure, other wide-swath satellite constellations, such as SPOT 6/7, which has a vast 60km swath, provide the required overview. In a recent example, the SPOT 6/7 constellation captured more than 1,500km2 in a single day along the Australian coast. Imagery taken by a wide-swath sensor, such as this, can help to identify areas, which might require more detailed information, for which a very high resolution sensor can be tasked in a second stage.

In contrast to other imagery acquisition tools, such as UAVs, aeroplanes or helicopters, satellites offer the advantage that data acquisition can be more cost-effective, as no expensive equipment or expert needs to be on site. Satellites can be easily tasked remotely – from the comfort of one’s own desk, using services such as the recently released user-friendly One Tasking service, which enables businesses to quickly task a satellite of their preference online or via the phone in minutes. This significantly reduces costs and risks that are commonly associated with sending staff and equipment to monitor a pipeline stretch on the ground, especially when located remotely or in difficult to access areas.

Saving costs – pipeline routing

During initial planning stages for new pipeline infrastructure, detailed datasets are required to identify the shortest, most efficient route, to guarantee the fastest, most cost-effective transportation of the resources. In a recent project, ILF Consulting Engineers needed urgent data to calculate an optimised route in the frame of the South Caspian Pipeline project located in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Due to the project’s short lead-times, Airbus Defence and Space was tasked to provide data within the best possible timeframe, as the datasets needed to be delivered directly at the start of the project.

In a first stage, off-the-shelf 30m Digital Elevation Models (DEM) and SPOTMaps with a 2.5m resolution were supplied in an instant, which immediately enabled the engineering consultants to verify the pipeline corridor position. Then, orthorectified 50cm resolution Pléiades archive imagery was provided. This allowed ILF to assess the pipeline corridor in greater detail. In a third stage, the Pléiades constellation was tasked to provide relevant data to deliver highly accurate and up-to-date datasets for the final pipeline route. Pléiades stereo pairs were collected and Ground Control points were used to create a 1m post spacing Elevation1 Digital Terrain Model. Stereo pair datasets are produced by collecting two satellite images of the same area from different angles. The derived three-dimensional elevation information is processed and delivered as the Elevation1 dataset, which is a high resolution elevation product that facilitates the understanding of the terrain in detail, providing crucial three-dimensional intelligence to pipeline engineers and desktop engineering projects.

This enabled the identification of optimised routeing options which facilitated the determination of a more effective pipeline route, reducing engineering costs and ensuring effective accessibility for staff where required. The satellite images also revealed the social, agricultural or industrial use of areas around the potential construction area so they could be assessed to minimise manifold risks before construction began.

During initial planning stages, when an understanding of the area of interest, the surrounding terrain, as well as potential land ownership issues need to be clarified, existing, library satellite images often offer an appropriate, highly cost-effective solution. Satellite imagery providers responded to this need and started to give access to their extensive imagery archives. As streaming  technology and sensor capability has developed, services such as One Atlas are offering a particularly fresh satellite image service, which covers the globe with up-to-date imagery, which is guaranteed fresher than 12 months. This gives pipeline engineers and management teams access to valuable information, which is available 24/7/365 and can be accessed easily online – without the need to send personnel to remote or inhospitable locations. This is particularly useful for a project with tight budget restraints. If on-site data acquisition is required, the fresh satellite archive images can be used to map and plan field data acquisition activities remotely, ensuring that surveying activities are optimised and access routes mapped to increase efficiency.

Overseeing Construction Works

Once approved and a pipeline’s construction commences, near real-time satellite imagery provides a cost-effective monitoring tool to oversee activities and progress. High-resolution satellite sensors, such as the previously mentioned 50cm resolution Pléiades satellite can be tasked using the tasking service OneTasking to monitor construction phases, including route clearing, trenching and pipeline installation. Another valuable application of high-resolution satellite imagery is the analysis of the construction activities’ environmental impact.

In a recent example, a water-quality specialist was tasked to deliver water quality reports to a contractor who constructed near-shore pipelines. The report was required as the pipeline construction involved intensive dredging activities. In this process, underwater sediments are transported, which can influence the water quality and requires intensive monitoring to minimise the impact.

In contrast to conventional on-site observation, sampling and laboratory analysis, which requires processing time and specialists on site – or includes logistical challenges – satellite imagery were conveniently tasked 24/7 online or through the satellite imagery provider’s customer services. This has the added advantage that the whole area of interest can be assessed, rather than the sampling point only, or be used to help target site sampling and observations more effectively.

In the mentioned example, daily and flexible access to images had to be guaranteed, for which a Pléiades subscription was the ideal solution. Due to the fully automated process, all images were delivered just a few hours after acquisition, enabling the contractor to receive near-real time overviews of the dredging impact.

Keeping watch of operational pipelines

Once a pipeline begins transporting resources and during its full operation, satellite technologies provide crucial intelligence to support the infrastructure’s monitoring. ‘Computational Pipeline Monitoring’ (CPM) technologies are commonly used to monitor anomalies regarding pressure, flows and temperature, which help to identify if a pipeline is at risk of or has already leaked. Satellite imagery can support these monitoring tools, allowing the identification of leaks whilst quantifying the size of the leak, to some level. This gives operators the ability to prioritise, plan and execute a timely response to an incident. But even for a pipeline’s on-going monitoring, satellite imagery provides a more cost-effective, risk-minimising and more convenient alternative to patrolling a pipeline stretch. The dataset can be used to plan maintenance checks and in-field monitoring activities more precisely – exactly where needed, increasing the efficiency of field operations.

When pipelines are running through densely populated areas, satellite images provide valuable information with regards to human activities or construction works that might impact a pipeline’s structural health. This is particular relevant for underground pipelines, which commonly run along transportation routes.

Monitoring Pipelines Offshore

Satellites technology can also assist with the monitoring of oil leaks from near-shore and offshore pipelines. Oil from a leaking pipeline can be detected using highly sensitive radar sensors, such as Airbus Defence and Space’s TerraSAR-X satellite. The radar technology detects oil leaks by identifying the dampening effect an oil slick has on surface waves, offering operators the ability to monitor offshore pipelines and early awareness of potential leaks, which can be investigated by response teams.

Third-party damages

It is not only structural issues or the lack of maintenance that can lead to leaks. Illegal pipeline tapping, vandalism, terrorist attacks or unintended attacks caused by geopolitical conflicts are major threats for oil and gas pipelines, presenting an ever-evolving danger that is difficult to manage. Consistent monitoring of the pipeline stretch allows business to become aware of changes in the pipeline’s environment, such as temporary settlements or activities executed on the pipeline, which cannot be detected by CPM tools. Satellite-based ‘Automated Change Detection’ tools contrast historic imagery with up-to-date intelligence – offering the capability to identify new settlements, as well as to monitor surface changes in proximity to the pipeline. The advantage is that satellite images can be obtained without needing to visit the location that could be remote, within an area of conflict or have other dangers.


We discussed the advantage of a number of satellite-based tools to support the management of pipeline infrastructure throughout their lifecycle.  This led us to explore the use of archive imagery and elevation data during initial planning and construction stages, to satellite tasking services and radar technologies for the monitoring during the operational phase. Overall, the presented tools allow operators to reduce costs and risks associated with in-field monitoring and surveying, leading to an increased effectiveness, efficiency and safety of pipeline infrastructure monitoring.

View this article in Pipeline Oil & Gas magazine

Sign up to our newsletter

Receive news about the latest satellite technologies and how they can support you in your unique challenges.