For pipeline operators – whether they be in the oil & gas or water sectors, monitoring and maintaining pipeline integrity is an ongoing, industry-wide challenge. But it is also a crucial consideration from a commercial, social, and environmental perspective. There are more than 3.5 million kilometres of pipeline operating worldwide, with the global pipeline transportation industry set to reach US$30 billion of revenue by 2026. These networks are responsible for delivering the most precious of resources to facilities and citizens everywhere.
Disabling a major pipeline effectively disables the entire society that depends on it. So, any vulnerability to pipeline theft, leaks, damage, or malicious activity represents the most urgent of business risks. It is not surprising, then, that the global pipeline safety market is also growing rapidly, with revenue expected to reach US$11.62 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 10.67%. Traditional pipeline monitoring solutions such as SCADA (supervisory and data control and acquisition) and PIDS (perimeter intrusion detection systems) still make up much of the market share. But increasingly, operators are recognising the value of AI driven DAS (distributed acoustic sensing) technology as an intelligent alternative with many advantages.
What are the biggest threats to pipeline safety?
In the water pipelines sector, operators are often presiding over a legacy of pipelines aged between 45 and 100 years. This renders these networks extremely vulnerable to potentially catastrophic leaks. In the UK alone, the equivalent of 1,182 Olympic swimming pools of water is lost to pipeline leaks every day! Perhaps surprisingly, though, a 2020 Australian study into water loss found that, in fact, theft is the biggest issue the sector faces, with up to 50% of the world’s water supply stolen each year.
Theft is also a headline risk for the oil & gas industry. Known as hot tapping, this crime is especially prevalent in parts of Africa, South America, Russia, Indonesia and Iraq. The cost of fuel theft is an estimated $133 billion per year, as reported by Oilman Magazine. That’s before we even start to consider accidental ROW interference (for example from heavy machine works close to the line), leaks caused by natural or man-made damage, and emerging cyber and terrorist threats. In May 2021, hackers used a compromised password to attack and disable Colonial Pipeline Inc.’s East Coast Line. 8,851 kilometres of pipeline had to be shut down, bringing the flow of 45% of the region’s fuel, quite literally, to a standstill. It is hard to overestimate the financial and reputational effects of this cyber-attack – but it is easy to predict that it may set a precedent for other such future attacks.
Increasingly, oil, gas and water pipeline operators are exploring the power of DAS technology (such as Fotech’s Helios® DAS) to automate and improve pipeline integrity monitoring. Using the fibre optic cables co-located with pipelines, DAS monitors millions of vibrational signatures for any indication of unusual activity. Configured with the right machine learning technology in the right way, DAS technology such as Fotech’s LivePIPE II® is extraordinarily sophisticated in its ability to not just detect disturbances, but interpret and analyse the data, reporting the nature of the disturbance back to the operator’s control room. The benefits are clear – the faster and more accurately a breach is detected, the faster the operator can address the problem. But the decision to integrate distributed acoustic sensing into a pipeline monitoring strategy also brings other strategic benefits for the operator itself - as well as the societies served by these pipelines.
Deploying DAS pipeline monitoring to meet environmental commitments
Water pipeline leakages and oil pipeline spills are a pressing consideration for operators everywhere. Whilst, at COP26, an alliance of countries committed to end oil & gas extraction in the long term, in the short term we remain dependent on these fuels. High profile leaks not only damage the natural world around us, but also the operator’s reputation with consumers, investors and shareholders alike.
A crucial weapon in the battle against pipeline leaks is time. For example, in October 2021, a Southern California underwater pipeline spilled tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the sea. The investigation is not yet complete, but early reports suggest that the pipeline damage may have happened months before the oil spill, most likely as the result of undetected anchor drag.
DAS technology has the capacity to prevent this type of delay when it comes to detecting pipeline leaks. The data generated by distributed acoustic sensing is monitored and analysed in real-time, meaning that any unusual disturbance along the pipeline is detected within minutes – not months. Plus, in the case of LivePIPE II®, the location of the disturbance can be pinpointed to within just metres. This alleviates both the financial cost and the environmental expense of deploying heavy repair teams to remote terrains, simply to try and locate the cause of the leak.
Safeguarding against political pipeline threats with DAS technology
The aforementioned ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline Inc. demonstrates the potential for terrorists to target pipeline resources to achieve unthinkable aims. As far back as 2003, the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security was reporting the acute vulnerability of pipelines - not just to cyber-attacks, but also to physical terrorism.
Whilst DAS cannot prevent a remote cyber-attack, it can play a vital role in detecting unusual events along the pipeline which may indicate a physical threat. Crucially, DAS technology can integrate with other pipeline security systems, such as CCTV and UAV integration. This allows operators to gain fast visibility of the threat, equipping them with vital intelligence so that they can deploy boots on the ground, utilise a drone to warn and even follow perpetrators, and deal with the situation before it becomes an unrecoverable disaster.
Optimising pipeline risk management strategies with advanced fibre optic sensing technology
Distributed acoustic sensing has other advantages for operators and their business models. In the case of pipeline theft or damage, UAV or CCTV integration (as mentioned above) not only reduces the risk of pipeline safety threats, but also provides evidence in cases where the pipeline is damaged. Whether this be through hot tapping, vandalism, or accidental machinery or maritime interference, such evidence can be vital in securing compensation or a criminal conviction.
Perhaps more importantly, though, DAS pipeline monitoring technology is specifically designed to intercept potential pipeline integrity threats before they become critical. From both an insurance and a repair and maintenance perspective, this generates cost-saving benefits on a considerable scale. Plus, in the case of LivePIPE II®, the addition of an EDAM (Enhanced Data and Acoustic Management) platform allows the pipeline operator to record, replay and analyse targeted segments of acoustic data over time. By building this historical picture of pipeline events, operators can begin to accurately predict and mitigate risks in the future, equipping them to adapt their pipeline security strategies accordingly.
To find out more about LivePIPE II®, Fotech’s modular pipeline monitoring DAS technology that detects and alerts within minutes and metres, contact Fotech in your region.
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