UAS Operations for Pipeline Surveillance

Research funded by the US Department of Transportation is underway to investigate how unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) could be used to monitor permafrost and unstable soils in order to develop a proactive decision-support system for pipeline operators.  Leading this research is the University of Alaska Fairbanks's (UAF) Alaska Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration (ACUASI) in cooperation with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.  Our team is leveraging an existing UAF research project with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company (Alyeska) titled “Protecting Transportation Infrastructure with UAS” that is investigating UAS operations for pipeline surveillance.

pipeline image 2

The use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) equipped with remote sensing capabilities offers new methods to monitor Arctic pipeline operations.  Advantages over traditional approaches include: operating at lower altitudes than manned aircraft, the ability to loiter and hover for close-range inspections, reoccurring inspections on the exact same flight path, and significantly reduced operating costs.

These goals are of interest to the US Department of Transportation which seek greater understanding of how these capabilities could be integrated into the daily business for pipeline operators.  The prime drivers for this research are improving decision support systems and linking integrity monitoring with engineering analysis for more efficient management.

This research evaluated a variety of UAS aircraft, sensors, and data processing techniques to determine the optimum monitoring approach. Three areas of research were selected for the UAS project:  integrity monitoring of the pipeline right-of-way, close-range aerial inspection of facilities, and operational inspection of thermosiphon heat-exchangers. The thermosiphon heat-exchangers transfer heat from the ground to the surface to mitigate permafrost thaw and keeping soils and slopes stable.  Streaming video from a low-cost camera provided the bulk of our situational awareness/human factors evaluation during the majority of research. The same camera also collected still images for detailed analysis.  The only notable issue experienced with the video relay was its telemetry range. 

pipeline inspection image 3

Research conducted for this project demonstrated that remote sensing capabilities of unmanned aircraft systems with high resolution streaming video, even from austere locations such as the Arctic, permits real-time pipeline integrity analysis.  Unmanned aircraft are not only augmenting imaging methods, they are enabling the integrity of imagery in the business decision making process.

For future applications, we are investigating a number of potential platforms that may provide added value for this type of application.  In addition, we are examining the effectiveness of pairing UAS with a ruggedized, long-duration unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) for increased mission reach and versatility.  In this configuration, UGVs may provide both a mobile local docking station as well as supporting power and data logging requirements.