Last month, in the West Midlands market town of Wednesbury, a residential street was left completely submerged after a water main burst.

An estimated 9ft of floodwater rushed down Leabrook Road after a contractor for Western Power smashed through a large diameter pipe with a mechanical digger. The leak, which occurred during the laying of electric cables, saw as much as 10 million litres of water released into the surrounding area.

Homes were evacuated, businesses and schools closed, and the emergency services called. Firefighters were tasked with pumping around 4,000 litres per minute away from the flood.

When a leak event occurs in a large diameter pipe, it rarely does so without consequence. This is because the flow rates are higher. So, a “minor leak” in a large diameter pipeline – such as the Wednesbury water main – results in a much more significant spill.

When it comes to monitoring pipelines, operators face many challenges. And one of the biggest difficulties they encounter is detection.

Detection rates directly influence response times. In order to effectively direct their response, operators require immediate alerts when anomalies or suspicious activities are identified. And they also need to know where on the pipeline such activity is occurring. So, how can operators prevent and detect such disastrous leaks from occurring?

The result has been greater investment in high-tech tools and technologies. More and more, utilities companies and pipeline operators are embracing monitoring technologies that can provide insight into the status of their networks. One of the most advanced and state-of-the-art technology platforms that can be deployed with pipelines is Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS). The technology converts a single fibre optic cable – running in parallel with the pipeline – into a network of highly-sensitive, individual vibrational sensors.

The platform provides an invisible ‘smart barrier’ between the pipeline and any external disturbances. The technology can be deployed across the pipeline’s entire length and enables continuous 24-hour monitoring – detecting potential threats and directing operator responses.

This type of technology is becoming increasingly important in pipeline networks all over the world. A fully integrated solution can cover an entire pipeline network (potentially hundreds of thousands of kilometres in length), and with advanced AI technology can identify and classify a leak incident in real-time. This means that operators have access to more intelligent and actionable information across their networks.

If we look at the incident in Wednesbury, this is the sort of accident that would have been avoided if the water main had been fitted with the DAS platform. The activity of the digger would have been detected by the fibre optics cable, the disturbance relayed to the monitor and the operators able to intervene.

The utilities company could then have alerted Western Power to the location of the water main and advised them as to how best to proceed. By harnessing technology that forewarns, operators can take action and avoid a potentially damaging and costly environmental incident.