Pipeline leaks and damage due to accidental interference and illegal hot tapping have been an industry-wide problem for many decades now. In response, pipeline operators are increasingly harnessing the power of Distributed Fibre Optic Sensing (DFOS – specifically Distributed Acoustic Sensing, or DAS) to detect such threats before they become critical incidents. Recently, though, as the global security environment becomes more volatile, new dangers are coming into play. This issue was starkly highlighted in September 2022, when three of the four Nord Stream pipelines began leaking natural gas into the Baltic Sea. At the time, a Danish military video was released, showing disturbances on the water surface spanning up to 1,000 metres, a worrying indication of what might be happening below. By October 2022, the suspected extent of the damage was starting to emerge. Via at least three separate leaks, the collective Nord Stream breaches are at this point estimated to have released at least half a million metric tonnes of methane. That’s the equivalent of one third of Denmark’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions – and the disaster becomes even more significant in the context of rising global energy prices.
As the stakes get higher, the pipeline monitoring industry is harnessing the power of distributed fibre optic sensing to fight back. And, as the technology becomes more sophisticated, it is driving a focus on prevention rather than cure when it comes to detecting pipeline leaks.
What is the Real Impact of Pipeline Leaks and Breaches?
In fact, it is extremely difficult to quantify the true extent of global pipeline leaks across the water, oil and gas pipeline industries in a single statistic. We can, however, appreciate the potential impacts from reports from regulators such as the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Its most recent report confirms that there have been 12,973 pipeline incidents, at a total cost of more than US$10 billion over the past twenty years. When we consider that the U.S. alone carries more than 4.1 million kilometres of oil and gas pipelines, and that there are more than 3.5 billion kilometres of pipeline spanning the globe, it is easy to visualise how these U.S. based figures might extrapolate out. Pipeline breaches are difficult to locate and repair at the best of times – not least due to the remote and hostile locations many pipelines run through. Mix in the threat of deliberate, organised sabotage, and the challenge of effectively monitoring pipelines becomes even more critical.
The issue is compounded for operators still using traditional leak detection systems – which rely on internal computer modelling systems that are slow to detect breaches and limited in their sensitivity. Many pipeline operators apply a standard minimum leak detection requirement of 1% of the pipeline flow rate. If we translate this to a pipeline carrying, for example, 16 million litres of oil per day, the reality is that 160,000 litres of flow rate will be lost daily before the operator is even aware that there may be a problem. And, even once they are, the source of the leak still needs to be identified, and a repair team deployed to fix the problem. The impact of those delays is serious enough in the case of a small, accidental breach. In the case of a large-scale malicious attack, such delays would almost certainly be catastrophic.
DAS Fibre Optic Sensing: An Early Warning System for Pipeline Leak and Breach Detection
It follows that a far more effective strategy is an early warning system – one that detects the possibility of a pipeline breach or malicious attack before any physical damage can be done. This is where rapidly evolving fibre optic sensing technology is leading the way. Our technology pages explain exactly how DAS technology, works – effectively by transforming the fibre optic cables running alongside the pipeline into an astonishingly precise acoustic sensor. The real benefits though, are experienced using the advanced Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning capabilities that support the core sensing technology – and these capabilities vary considerably between DAS pipeline leak detection systems.
In the case of Fotech Solutions’ LivePIPE®, the benefits are clear and evidenced in our Pipeline Integrity Case Study. The study describes how LivePIPE® detected, analysed, and reported evidence of a possible major disturbance to a remotely located pipeline. Armed with intelligence provided by our system, the operator was able to rapidly locate the site of the disturbance. On arrival, it quickly became apparent that a seismic exploration team had been misdirected by faulty GPS and was preparing to deploy explosives right on top of the pipeline! The operator’s field team was able to intervene, prevent the explosions, and hence avoid what would undoubtedly have been a major pipeline incident before it ever happened.
On that particular occasion, the damage would have been accidental. But, if we apply the same principles of early detection to malicious threats, the benefits are clear. What’s more, the ability to integrate DAS with an operator’s own UAV systems allows operators to send warning drones directly to the location of the disturbance as soon as it is detected. Possible perpetrators can be observed, warned away from the site, and even followed and filmed to deter them from continuing, as well as to gather important evidence around criminal pipeline activity. LivePIPE®’s capabilities were enhanced even further this year, with the launch of our next generation of Helios DAS® x 4 interrogator units. Featuring NVIDIA GPU-accelerated computing, single and dual channel options, and a monitoring distance of up to 50km per channel, this next wave of DAS interrogators is providing faster, more accurate pipeline monitoring than ever before. As such, LivePIPE® with Helios DAS® x 4 is fast becoming an integral part of the ongoing battle against third party interferences and leak detection for Fotech customers across the globe.
More on Pipeline Leak Detection:
Read our Pipeline Integrity Case Study in full.
Find out more about next generation pipeline monitoring from Fotech.
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