Companies responsible for large-scale infrastructure assets are increasingly turning to drones to evaluate those assets and scale their monitoring operations. Pipelines, in particular, require greater attention and integrity management as they age and encounter an array of hazards, and as governments issue new regulations. Many oil and gas companies use multiple tools, including pipeline inspection gauges, SCADA control systems, fiber-optic cables, small manned aircraft and ground teams to keep pace, but these measures are essentially reactive.

Such measures don’t provide high-quality data at a regular cadence that enables proactive pipeline integrity management — guarding against product loss and protecting investments, communities and environments before there’s a significant problem. That high-quality data is “layered,” meaning voluminous data is accumulated from a consistent pattern of high-resolution, targeted imaging over time, which reveals granular changes. Proactive means detecting changes that signal a potential issue, like a leak or crack, before it even develops.

So, where does a pipeline operator start? Consider several best practices for spinning up a modern, proactive drone monitoring program that leverages layered, high-precision aerial data.

Conduct a comprehensive review of existing systems and programs.

First, review all in-depth plans, reports and assessments of the pipeline system to be monitored and the current programs in place. Review geography, geology, topography, ranges and route plans, as well as all internal and external data sources and processing systems. What are the gaps and drawbacks with the current monitoring? What’s the frequency and consistency of the current monitoring? What are the relevant risk factors — erosion rates, weather patterns, levels of human activity in the area, materials and equipment issues and susceptibility of the pipeline to degradation? A comprehensive review often reveals overlooked or ignored planning and systems gaps.

SkyVision SkyX area of interest

Determine program management roles and responsibilities.

Launching a new program or updating an old one requires deciding whether you want to manage the operation in-house or bring in experts who work either as full-service partners or who handle only some components of your program. Ongoing and systematic aerial pipeline monitoring requires capital investment, staff and training. In particular, a program must account for: (1) sourcing and purchasing an enterprise-grade drone fleet; (2) servicing the fleet with maintenance and repairs; (3) training drone operators on equipment, hardware and software; (4) planning and executing regular flights at a cadence that yields layered data; (5) managing regulatory compliance and current certifications; and (6) storing and analyzing thousands of high-resolution images to identify anomalies.

Choose systematic data collection and change detection.

This is at the heart of a modernized approach to pipeline integrity. A proactive pipeline integrity program implements highly systematic, frequent data collection and analysis. Frequently gathered granular data allows you to look at things over time. When you layer large quantities of high-quality data through a repeated process with established patterns, it becomes actionable. That is what’s necessary to better detect and track changes along pipelines. A long-range, high-precision aerial mapping program that leverages this type of data collection and change detection analytics yields actionable insights that teams can use to investigate suspect areas and evaluate risk more efficiently than ever before. It’s preventative medicine that stops disaster before it starts and before expensive interventions are required.

Hand-in-hand with choosing this approach is choosing software with the right capabilities. It should be designed specifically to visualize pipelines and large-scale assets; it should integrate data from other sources, like satellite data or data acquired from ground crews; and it should easily accommodate GIS applications.

SkyVision SkyX change detection

Start building a digital twin for predictive analytics.

Ultimately, massive quantities of layered aerial data for change detection can be used in conjunction with data showing what’s happening inside a pipeline — to build out a digital twin of the pipeline. A 3D digital twin maps the entire asset and processes functioning within and around it. As you accumulate data modeling the twin, it can be fed into AI applications for predictive analytics. This best practice takes time and an enormous amount of data to implement, but it should represent a longer-term goal for companies to maximize efficiency and safety. The immediate benefits of change detection and actionable insights are still at work, while augmented intelligence is building the future in the background.

Communicate benefits to company leaders.

Don’t silo what you know, even if initial buy-in from key stakeholders is already there. When company leaders thoroughly understand the benefits of a proactive and systematic approach to pipeline integrity, they are in a position to predict expenditures, bolster investment and improve reputation.

A program that accurately identifies, in a timely manner, areas most at risk of corrosion and damage likely to result in spills, enables companies to replace failing pipeline segments in small doses and fit new valves over time — mitigating costs. That means better, more predictable budgeting for capital expenditures (CapEx). For oil and gas leaders, there’s an additional advantage in demonstrating a genuinely proactive approach to environmental concerns: it builds positive reputation and trust — and that’s a smart business decision.

Being able to detect problems much more quickly than with traditional approaches keeps communities, animals, land and water sources safer — a win for everyone that the company can promote. Even more importantly, sustainable practices heavily factor into the future of energy production, distribution and consumption. The sooner companies dealing in vital non-renewables can engage in best practices that embrace the environment, the more likely next generations are to embrace those companies.

Didi Horn is the founder and CEO of SkyX.