The Sky is Not the Limit – Pipeline Monitoring

This Pléiades satellite image shows a burning asset in Tripoli, Libya. (Source: CNES 2014/Distribution Airbus DS)

This Pléiades satellite image shows a burning asset in Tripoli, Libya. (Source: CNES 2014/Distribution Airbus DS)

Any number of facility and pipeline accidents or incidents is too many. They can cause major business disruption, significant environmental damage and, in some cases, human fatalities. In the U.S. alone there were more than 30 incidents in 2016, and each of these instances increased the pressure on business owners and operators to improve the design and maintenance as well as inspection management of their assets.

However, help is at hand. The availability of new advanced satellite technology, software and sensors is enabling businesses to monitor assets using a more holistic, integrated approach, generally described as asset integrity management (AIM). To function effectively and to accurately inform operators about plantrelated network issues, precise and up-to-date data are crucial. Gaining this insight requires the appropriate tools to be in place to constantly monitor assets, which can span several hundred kilometers. This is where commercial access to satellite innovations and premium satellite operators’ oil-and-gas-specific intelligence and expertise provides new, valuable datasets to support and cost-effectively inform operational AIM activities.

Advanced satellite innovations for AIM strategies

Very high-resolution and wide-swath satellite sensors already have proved to be successful tools, especially when assets are located remotely, allowing oil and gas operators to monitor facilities and pipelines in a timely manner, no matter how far away these infrastructures might be from management or decision makers. Many satellite providers also have given oil and gas operators direct access to tasking their constellation of satellites. One of these providers is Airbus Defence and Space, which not only gives access to its satellites but also offers value-added services and intelligence solutions, supporting each stage of the oil and gas project life cycle.

Optical sensors such as the Pléiades satellite constellation take very high-resolution images in fine detail (Pléiades offers 50-cm imagery products). The other sensor type is a highly sensitive radar sensor such as TerraSAR-X. Radar images, for example, are very suitable to help detect offshore oil leaks regardless of the weather or light conditions by identifying the dampening effect oil has on sea surface waves. Equally, complex civil engineering projects, which can cause movements of the Earth’s surface, use TerraSAR-X-based analysis to detect even the smallest changes to ensure the safe implementation and maintenance of infrastructure constructions, excavations and underground engineering.

When selecting a satellite imagery provider, operators should ensure they choose a partner that has access to the full gambit of radar and optical satellite constellations and has user-friendly platforms in place to facilitate quick satellite tasking and dissemination. This is particularly important when urgent and timely images of an area of interest are required. In addition, the satellite provider’s expertise in responding to oil- and gas-specific needs and challenges should be an important aspect of the selection process.

An asset’s design stage

AIM is focused on ensuring that a particular asset or group of assets is performing its required function effectively and efficiently while also protecting HSE. From initial design stages satellite imagery and intelligence can play a valuable supporting role, helping to inform key planning and construction decisions, which can have long-term implications.

Satellite technologies have for decades helped advance the geological interpretation of onshore and offshore regions to evaluate potential areas of development. Beyond this, they can support the projects’ further development.

For example, onshore satellite imagery-based maps are used to assist the seismic planning process. The images allow mapping “go” areas, which are areas that are easily accessible, and “no go” areas, which don’t allow seismic acquisition vehicles to easily collect data. This simple process can substantially reduce the time the staff needs to spend onsite for data collection, and it also reduces the multiple risks team members are exposed to when moving around the world, particularly in difficult-to-reach and inhospitable locations.

In addition, Airbus also offers a number of satellite- based elevation products, including a worldwide homogeneous elevation map named WorldDEM. Using this dataset in conjunction with satellite images gives engineers detailed information to develop optimized construction routes, locations and appropriate designs, which can help increase an asset’s efficiency and safety from an early stage.

In one recent example ILF Consulting Engineers needed detailed information to calculate an optimized, fast and cost-effective pipeline route traveling between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Due to the short lead time of the project, Airbus was tasked with providing data for the project prior to construction with a required accuracy level of 1-m (3.2-ft) root mean square. Initially, very high-resolution Pléiades archive imagery and off-the-shelf digital elevation models and elevation datasets were provided that allowed ILF to verify the pipeline corridor position and correct prerouting errors; this was then advanced with new acquisition of Pléiades stereo pair datasets and onsite acquisition of ground control points that provided a highly accurate Elevation 1 Digital Terrain Model, helping identify a shorter route than initially considered as a result (Figure 1).

All of this was successfully planned and engineered remotely on a computer with the provided datasets. This enabled the team to ensure compliance with numerous factors, which overall minimized risk and cost during the construction stage and during the pipeline’s operational phase, minimizing site data collection.

The benefits are equally significant in an offshore scenario. Airbus’ One Tasking satellite service provides an important tool for monitoring the environmental impact of construction work, enabling early interventions if required. In a recent example, the environmental impact of nearshore pipeline construction activities was monitored in the Caspian Sea using satellite imagery to identify the impact of dredging activity on the dispersion of sediments. Traditional water quality monitoring techniques would have presented logistical and operational inconveniences as well as long processing times, whereas with flexible satellite tasking capability images were delivered just 2.5 hours after acquisition. This allowed the customer to define the quantitative and spatial dispersion of sediments and make rapid, informed decisions based on the findings.

Monitoring during the production phase

The continuing depression of global oil prices and the resulting reductions in budgets have led to the lifespan of many operational assets being extended to maximize return. The increasing age and potential structural vulnerability of these dated assets brings along a whole host of new challenges for AIM, but even new assets require rigorous maintenance and continuous inspections to guarantee that their condition is “fit for service”—all requirements that can be supported by satellite imagery and its derived intelligence.

In contrast to other imagery acquisition tools such as airplanes and helicopters, satellites offer data acquisition that is significantly more cost-effective since the satellites already are circling the globe and no expensive equipment or experts are required onsite, particularly useful when long pipeline stretches need to be monitored. The satellite-produced datasets can be used to plan maintenance checks and infield monitoring activities more precisely or to increase the efficiency of infield operations. They also can be used to identify pipeline leaks or structural changes in almost real time to enable rapid action to be taken.

Some satellite providers also offer the automated detection of imagery changes using historic and up-to-date satellite imagery. Airbus’ automated change detection software can provide valuable insights and prewarning information for integration into AIM systems.

Emergency detection and response

It is not only structural issues or the lack of maintenance that can cause problems. Illegal pipeline tapping, vandalism, terrorist attacks or unintended attacks caused by geopolitical conflicts are major threats for oil and gas assets, presenting an ever-evolving danger that is difficult to manage. In one example, Pléiades was tasked when a fuel storage facility in Libya caught fire during conflicts between rival militants. By using Airbus’ GeoStore, the Pléiades satellite constellation was tasked and very high-resolution images were received just 90 minutes after the satellite passed the area, quickly providing fresh and important
information regarding fire source points and nearby areas that were at risk as well as details to plan any response (Figure 2).

The process of tasking a satellite to retrieve exactly what is needed has now become even easier with the launch of One Tasking, which only requires a few clicks using this online platform. The flexible service also provides the option to create regular tasking plans in line with client-specific AIM system milestones, which means the satellite can be scheduled in advance to capture a specific area of interest on the exact day(s) required.

Should the AIM system detect an emergency issue, the first priority is to get the right information to the right person. Satellite communication tools, which also track asset locations using a geographic information system, provide an efficient way to communicate important action plans and share datasets across global team members, enabling an appropriate response to issues. SAFECommand is an example of this type of satellite communication tool, providing a secure platform that provides real-time location intelligence for staff and vehicles as well as integrated operational planning, response and communication functionalities.

Satellite technology—advancing AIM

The availability of the latest satellite technologies provides a unique opportunity to gain important insights into an asset’s safety and environmental impact throughout its life cycle and at an affordable cost. Moreover, the addition of intuitive satellite tasking services, the environmental monitoring capability of radar satellites, automated change detection and satellite-based communication tools can all be used in isolation or integrated into a suite of resources available 24/7 to maximize an operation’s effectiveness and to benefit the organization.

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