Using UAVs to Map and Monitor Pipelines

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Dustin Price, a licensed land surveyor and the operations manager at Landpoint, provides his thoughts about how Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) technology can contribute towards pipeline routing and monitoring.  

As UAV technology has become more advanced and affordable, it has been applied throughout many areas of the oil and gas industry. From construction inspection to scheduled maintenance, UAVs are able to make oil and gas sites both safer and more economical.

One area in which UAVs can be particularly helpful is with pipeline routing. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are currently being used to not only speed up the pipeline routing process but also to make it both safer and more economical. Here’s how.

The Common Challenges with Pipeline Routing

The United States alone maintains a total of 2,225,032 kilometers of oil and gas pipeline. As the demand for energy continues to increase, the need for additional kilometers of pipeline also increases. Pipelines are the fastest, safest, and most cost-effective method of bringing gas oil and gas from the sources to major demand centers.

Understandably, the land surveys for these extensive projects have to cover extremely large areas. Ideally, these areas are also fairly distant and remote, and can cover large regions that are difficult to navigate. Because of this, surveying for potential pipeline routes and be a time consuming, expensive affair.

Frequently, both land surveys and manned aircraft surveys are used to chart out the land, looking for any potential environmental concerns, population dense regions, or areas that otherwise need to be preserved or pose a hazard. Once the survey has been completed, the most efficient routing path can be determined. Good data is paramount to selecting the best route, so corners can’t be cut during the collection process.

Three Ways UAVs Improve the Pipeline Routing Process

1. UAVs are Fast

Traditionally, areas that cannot be surveyed by manned aerial vehicles need to be surveyed by ground crews. This takes an exceptionally long time since the terrain is often rugged and not easily accessible. Manned aerial vehicles fly fairly high, so while they are able to survey land quickly, they cannot always survey the land with the detail that is necessary. There are also areas in which the topography itself may not be visible from a height — or areas that could carry with it some type of hazard or risk. Ground survey crews are generally more careful and more accurate because they are on-site, but the trade off is that they are much slower.

UAVs are essentially the best of both worlds. They are able to fly lower than traditional manned vehicles and are hence able to survey more accurately and reliably than a traditional, manned aerial crew. UAVs are also able to fly at high speeds, which makes them preferable over ground crews in terms of time. Because of this, UAVs are able to produce highly accurate land surveys far faster than using a combination of ground crews and air crews.

The speed of a land survey is very important to the entire pipeline routing process. The faster the land survey can be completed, the faster the project itself can be completed. Delays with the land survey can lead to issues acquiring permits and arranging construction later on.

UAV thermal scanning of pipelines. Concept video from Animatechnika.
UAV thermal scanning of pipelines. Concept video from Animatechnika.

2. UAVs are Efficient

Pipeline construction is a multi-million dollar enterprise, even for smaller projects. Mistakes, even small mistakes, during the pipeline routing process could lead to unnecessary expenditures, project delays, and even major environmental and public concerns. As mentioned earlier, ground crews and aerial crews are often needed in order to ensure the accuracy of the survey data. However, using UAVs to survey potential pipelines routes requires significantly fewer resources without a loss in data quality.

In traditional surveying, the information collected from ground crews and manned aerial crews are often analyzed and collected separately. They must them be consolidated into a single system before the actual process of preliminary routing and finalization can be done. Not only does this involve processing time, but it can also contribute to transfer errors — information may not be entered in entirely accurately or may need to be sifted through manually to find glitches and discrepancies. UAVs are able to avoid this issue altogether by logging data directly into a single, consolidated system. The data from this system can be fed directly into the solution that is being used to map out the region.

3. UAVs are Safe

UAVs aren’t just for directly improving upon speed and cost — they can also considerably improve upon safety. During both ground and manned air surveys, there is always the possibility that a surveyor could be injured. Crews on the ground can encounter rough terrain and environmental hazards, while surveyors in the air could potentially be involved in crashes or collisions. When an accident does occur, the project itself can be slowed or miss deadlines. UAVs completely remove these potential risks by removing manual surveyors from the equation. As unmanned vehicles, UAV equipment can greatly increase the safety of the entire survey process, which in turn results in safer employees, better safety records, and a more consistent adherence to deadlines.

In the future, land surveying may be conducted almost exclusively through the use of UAVs. And, as the technology improves, UAVs may be able to conduct their scans even faster and more effectively. These advancements may lead to faster, more accurate mapping. Ultimately, by reducing the time and costs associated with pipeline routing, gas and oil companies will be able to further improve their own bottom lines.

About the Author

dustine-priceDustin Price is a licensed land surveyor and the operations manager at Landpoint. He leads the company in determining the technical approach for delivering professional, tailored surveying services through UAV technology.


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