July 2018: Uncle Sam’s Energy Infrastructure Needs IoT Tech

Why America’s pipeline infrastructure built decades ago is reaching the end of its lifecycle.

North America’s energy business has transformed in the past decade and now the IoT (Internet of Things) is making way for improved processes in nearly every facets of society, including oil and gas, construction, and energy. What hasn’t changed in more than a century is the fact that life and business rely on energy. By extension, life and business also rely on the infrastructure required to deliver this energy from the source to the point of use. Unfortunately, in the United States, pipeline infrastructure built decades ago is reaching the end of its lifecycle.

With the increase in U.S. oil production thanks to the “shale revolution,” there is more product to get to market, and some experts say the U.S. doesn’t have the infrastructure needed to sustainably support continued growth. However, with new installations and existing infrastructure alike, the risk of incidents is a major concern for the environment, and so the issue becomes muddled, even political.

Thankfully for all involved, IoT technology is playing a role in both new construction and the maintenance of existing pipeline infrastructure, making operations more efficient and more transparent and making the pipelines themselves safer and more secure.


According to Mike Hines and John Williams, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of FOSA (Fiber Optic Sensing Assn.), with an aging pipeline network, a limit on throughput capacity, more product to ship, and new pipeline routes needed to reach new markets, new pipeline infrastructure is nothing short of a necessity in the U.S. However, Hines and Williams also say that while pipelines are the most reliable form of long-distance hydrocarbon transport, pipeline incidents can be devastating, so there is intense scrutiny on the safety of this infrastructure and how it can be optimized. To improve safety and optimization of this critical infrastructure, enter the next generation of infrastructure-monitoring technologies.

America’s Failing Grade

Just how bad is the United States’ energy infrastructure? A closer look at the ASCE’s (American Society of Civil Engineers) 2017 Infrastructure Report Card provides a glimpse into the problem. In the energy category, the ASCE awarded the U.S. an abysmal D+.

While the ASCE’s position is that U.S. energy systems will be able to meet national energy demands in the near term, the ASCE also states that “little consideration” has been given to long-term energy sustainability. Further, while the ASCE says oil and gas delivery via well-maintained pipelines remains an efficient and safe supply chain, the key is this infrastructure must be well maintained.

Enter the IoT

“Point sensors have long played a role in monitoring pipelines in SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition)-based architectures that monitor the pipeline at discreet locations along its path, looking at measurements such as pressure, temperature, and flow,” say Hines and Williams. “CPM (computational pipeline modeling) software can look at these measurements and provide pipeline operators with alerts when the measurements fall out of preprogrammed ‘thresholds’. These sensors are typically miles apart and transmit data over a wireless network.”

Looking ahead to the next generation of pipeline-monitoring technologies, FOSA is actively advocating for DFOS (distributed fiber optic sensing), which converts a fiber optic cable buried next to the pipeline into a fully distributed array of thousands of sensing locations that physically sense vibration or acoustics, temperature, and strain events external to the pipe. “A typical resolution for fiber optic sensing is less than 10 meters or 30 feet, which means that for a 100-mile pipeline, the fiber provides around 16,000 sensing points, all looking for the signals of leaks or intrusions on the pipeline in realtime,” explain Hines and Williams. “This density and distribution of sensing points monitoring simultaneously and persistently provides significant advantage for pipeline safety and produces a huge amount of data.”

Software provides realtime analysis of this data, making it actionable for the operator. For instance, the system might generate a leak alert tagged with a location, or it might provide the location of a pipeline inspection gauge as it passes through the pipe. It might even alert operators to the presence of a trespasser on foot or in a vehicle. Augmenting the value add are additional optical fibers within the cable that can transmit data, providing a network backbone for pipeline automation instrumentation in a high-bandwidth, high-speed ecosystem.

Hines and Williams say leak detection performance on pipelines is measured against sensitivity (the size of leak that’s detectable), reliability (the number of false alarms), accuracy (pinpointing the size and location of the leak), and robustness (the ability to withstand different operating conditions). “Technology is constantly being developed and improved against these four characteristics,” the two FOSA executives explain. “Distributed fiber optic sensing is significantly moving the needle on sensitivity, accuracy, and robustness, and, when applied correctly, (it) is extremely reliable.”

Fiber optic cables must be installed during the construction phase of the pipeline, i.e., while the trench is open. As a result, new pipelines are currently the main market for DFOS technology. New construction of pipeline infrastructure may not be the way forward, according to some industry observers, who see the existing pipeline infrastructure as sufficient for today’s demands as well as tomorrow’s. However, this isn’t to say the existing infrastructure is sufficient in its current form.

Mohammad Najafi, professor in the Dept. of Civil Engineering’s UTA (Urban Water Institute) at the University of Texas Arlington, says most of the pipeline infrastructure in the U.S., specifically for water and sewer, was put in place in the 1960s and 1970s, and it is nearing the end of its useful life. Najafi suggests now is the time to do something to improve these “lifelines” to prevent catastrophic failures and service interruptions. But, he says the emphasis should be on renew and replace: “The existing pipeline infrastructure spans millions of miles and definitely it requires renewal and replacement. We need more rehabilitation, renewal, (and) replacement than new installations.”

To enable rehabilitation and renewal of existing infrastructure, Najafi points to the benefits of realtime monitoring and inspection solutions leveraging satellites and IoT connectivity. “Satellites can be used for locating and monitoring cross-country pipeline operations and locations,” he says.

Smartpipe Technologies

Spotlight on Pipeline-Monitoring Tech

Research from MarketsandMarkets suggests the pipeline-monitoring systems market is expected to reach $8.7 billion by 2026—up from $4.1 billion in 2015. Realtime sensing and monitoring technologies will become increasingly important as the United States looks for ways to improve its pipeline infrastructure and deliver energy safely and reliably. Here are just a few of the players in this growing space:

Sentry Technologies offers wireless sensors and satellite-based solutions that check critical systems 24/7 and alert operators if something’s amiss. Its remote-monitoring solutions open the door for improved and streamlined data tracking and analysis, as well as decreased downtime.

Silent Falcon is a solar electric sUAS (small unmanned aircraft system) designed to serve multiple industries, including oil and gas, as well as agriculture, mining and construction, and law enforcement. The device can perform pipeline monitoring by way of leak detection (using a thermal sensor) or by detecting thieves at night (using an infrared camera).

Smartpipe Technologies offers an embedded fiber optic monitoring and communication system that provides realtime data about potential threats to the pipeline. Smartpipe, though its pipe can be laid as a standalone system, also specializes in non-intrusive pipeline replacement technology, which uses existing infrastructure to bring in a new generation of pipeline.

“Drones are used for internal pipeline inspection. Drones also can be used for pipeline security and encroachments. Fiber optics can (be) installed along the pipeline wall to monitor certain pipeline material performance and structural integrity. (The) use of sensors inside pipe materials allows for continuous monitoring as well.”

Najafi also advocates for the use of construction techniques like trenchless technology, which is a type of subsurface construction work that requires few trenches or no continuous trenches, instead of conventional dig and replace methods. “Trenchless technology methods reduce social and environmental costs of pipeline construction and renewal,” he explains. “They reduce noise, dust, fuel consumption, air pollution, road accidents, damage to pavement, driveways, curbs, and sidewalks, trees and green areas, soil handling, and traffic disruptions. They enhance safety. They reduce the duration of a pipeline construction and renewal project significantly, thereby reducing construction nuisances to the general public.”

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Supporting Energy Lifelines

Richard DiClaudio, president, CEO, and founding board member of the EICI (Energy Innovation Center Institute), suggests that to understand what’s happening now in energy and pipeline infrastructure, you have to know a bit of history. “The first recorded pipeline that connected a drilled natural gas well to its end users was in northwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1820s,” DiClaudio says. “Hollowed-out logs were used—I suspect there was significant line loss. But, regardless, it was an innovation on what had been a few thousand years of using natural gas only at its source of natural seeps.”

In the early 1800s, DiClaudio says the profession of engineering and material science combined and advanced, allowing for the successful drilling of natural gas and oil wells, and that quickly led to commercial-scale gas production that would drive the industry and its need for ever increasing, reliable, and effective gathering. “Currently, the need to move natural gas from its source to its end use is met through a large, complex pipeline infrastructure connecting many smaller gating systems and sometimes connected directly to individual wells,” explains DiClaudio. “Parts of that system are very new; others are aging and in need of significant attention, and others still are operationally solid but no longer connect commercial volumes to their market.”

Research and Markets

Today, IoT-enabled devices and solutions can collect decision-enhancing data about pipeline systems in the field rapidly and, often, reliably. “Most applications involve connecting, measuring, and analyzing flow, repair and maintenance, and adverse event conditions,” DiClaudio adds. “Simply put, there is an ever-increasing cascade of new IoT and IoP (Internet of Place) technologies that will permit midstream energy companies—actually the full spectrum of the energy industry—to achieve increased flow and mix optimizations, reduced repair and maintenance costs, and, most importantly, reduced accidents and environment issues.”

Prodded by the potential value add to infrastructure maintenance and operations, IoT adoption in oil and gas is on the rise. A report by Research and Markets forecasts the global IoT in oil and gas market will exceed $30 billion by 2026. The firm suggests growth will be driven by factors such as an aging infrastructure and the need to increase operational efficiency, as well as an increasing number of cyberattacks and, notably, a shortage of skilled labor.

DiClaudio says while the need for men and women to visit, repair, and calibrate equipment in the field may never be eliminated, there is an aging workforce issue that cannot be fully met by training a new workforce. As a result, he expects at least part of this skills gap will need to be bridged by IoT technologies.

“In the end, the need for abundant, safe, environmentally secure, and reasonably priced energy will continue to drive innovation and the need for new technologies,” DiClaudio says. “At some point in the future, the world will begin to see a disequilibrium between its consumption needs and the production capabilities of natural gas. Technology has and must continue to drive toward cleaner, more sustainable energy.”

Awareness and education will be increasingly important components in addressing the problem. Entities like FOSA are working toward educating industry, government, and the public about the benefits of infrastructure technology—in FOSA’s case, fiber optic sensing—through Webinars, videos, white papers, public presentations, and public policy advocacy.

“In the end, the need for abundant, safe, environmentally secure, and reasonably priced energy will continue to drive innovation and the need for new technologies.” –Richard DiClaudio, Energy Innovation Center Institute

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ASCE – Failure to Act

The University of Texas Arlington’s Najafi says there also needs to be more resources for research and education at U.S. universities. Though a handful of universities offer courses on pipeline installation and renewal, he says many university graduates do not receive proper education and training in this area, and, as a result, they have to learn on the job.

Finally, a notable hurdle holding multiple aspects of infrastructure renewal and rehabilitation back is a lack of government funding. “Many political leaders do not see the urgency until the system fails,” Najafi says. “It is ‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind’, so the strategy is you don’t fix it until you are forced to do it.” This strategy may be convenient in the here and now, but it is a risky one in the grand scheme of things.

Energy is an industrial nation’s lifeline. It supports nearly every aspect of life and business in today’s connected world, and its safe, reliable delivery is something that must not be taken for granted. Discussions about pipeline infrastructure can get very political, very quickly. But whether it’s supporting the renewal of existing infrastructure or facilitating the safest possible construction of new infrastructure, the IoT can and, arguably, must be a part of how the U.S. keeps its lifelines healthy going forward.

“Many political leaders do not see the urgency until the system fails. It is ‘out-of-sight-out-of-mind,’ so the strategy is you don’t fix it until you are forced to do.” –Mohammad Najafi, University of Texas Arlington

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Look Who's Talking

Look Who’s Talking

Kristina Swallow, president, ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers), joined Peggy Smedley to kick off an amazing month addressing the state of infrastructure. They talked about the Infrastructure Report Card—and the areas where the nation is truly struggling most. With more than 20 years of professional practice in water resources, transportation, and land development, Swallow is very passionate about civil engineering and the benefits of infrastructure for communities, especially transportation systems. To learn more about ASCE effort, check out its app or its Website www.infrastructurereportcard.org

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