Data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) highlights that about 45 percent of crude oil pipelines in the United States are over half a century old. This picture is replicated around the world. Most of the pipeline infrastructure in use globally today was built in between the 1950s and the 1970s.

This represents a serious challenge for regulators and operators alike. Much of this network was simply not built to the size and strength required for today's product volumes, which are larger and are transported under much higher pressure.

Just this year we have seen a number of incidents and conflicts as a result of issues with ageing pipelines. For example, in June Michigan's attorney general called for oil pipelines under Lakes Huron and Michigan to be shut down – primarily due to the age of the pipelines in question, which have been in service for over 60 years. Earlier in the year reports in Alaska suggested that local residents are increasingly concerned about the long-term risks of ageing pipeline infrastructure. This was following a series of leaks from pipes that are 40-50 years old in the Cook Inlet.

Clearly, for these ageing pipelines maintenance operations are absolutely vital. There is a plethora of maintenance technologies available and new systems being developed. However, too often these technologies are deployed as standalone solutions which limits their ability to provide comprehensive monitoring.

On ageing pipelines, incidents could happen anytime, anywhere on the pipeline. As a result, operators need systems that enable them to maintain maximum possible vigilance across the whole pipeline so that impact of any incidents is minimised – something that any standalone maintenance system is not going to achieve.

Instead, what is required is for maintenance operations to more closely resemble the integrated SCADA systems that are in place to deal with third party intrusion-type incidents. And, much like in security scenarios, DAS-based monitoring solutions have a big part to play in beefing up maintenance efforts.

By providing continuous monitoring of the entire pipeline DAS can provide a vital layer of additional intelligence – pulling information gleaned from other maintenance sensors into a big picture view of what is happening on the pipeline at any given moment.

In the worst case scenario – where a leak occurs – DAS again can provide new capabilities that help operators. DAS technology can detect the vibrations and strains caused by escaping product. This enables operators to identify the leak within minutes and locate it to within 10m.

These capabilities can provide significant enhancements to operators’ maintenance efforts. Maintenance of ageing pipelines is in many ways more difficult and less ‘sexy’ than preventing criminal attacks, but it is no less important. Operators need monitoring solutions that offer genuine coverage and insight when it comes to maintenance issues. As such, DAS should be an integral part of those solutions, acting as the ‘glue’ that holds disparate maintenance sensors together to provide complete maintenance monitoring across the whole pipeline.