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UAV Pipeline Monitoring – Long Beach, NY – Project Summary

In October 2017, ULC Robotics conducted unmanned aerial pipeline monitoring of a gas transmission main for leaks while the pressure was being increased. The UAV flight enabled our utility customer to confirm the transmission line was free of leaks while delivering increased safety and lower costs. 

UAV Pipeline Leak Monitoring

Client : National Grid

Location : Long Beach, NY

Project Date : October 2017

Main Length : 730 feet

Main Pressure : 960 psig

In October 2017, National Grid requested ULC Robotics to conduct unmanned aerial pipeline monitoring over an offshore section of gas transmission main in Long Beach, NY. Inspection for leaks is required by the New York State Department of Public Service (NYS DPS) whenever pressure in the main is increased.

Historically, gas line operators like National Grid have fulfilled this requirement by hiring a marine or aviation services firm to travel along the main using manned boats or aircraft and visually inspect the surface of the water for signs of a leak (i.e., bubbles). But these methods have a number of limitations.

In the case of marine vessels, inspection can only be conducted from a low vantage point. Additionally, because of the breaking surf, the vessel cannot travel too close to shore, which makes inspecting the entirety of the transmission line difficult. Manned aerial inspections also pose problems because they have to be conducted at higher speeds, which limits the ability of personnel to visually identify leaks.

By conducting an aerial inspection using ULC’s custom-developed H1000 Hexacopter equipped with a 42 MP high resolution camera payload, these limitations were overcome. A total of three missions were flown, each at a different air speed and altitude to ensure sufficient data retrieval. The flights covered a total of 25 acres of water surface area and resulted in 100% capture of high-resolution 4K video. The video was recorded and reviewed immediately after the flight, thus allowing National Grid to quickly and efficiently confirm that no leaks were present in the main.

Challenges:

At less than 10 miles from John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport, the airspace around Long Beach is extremely congested. To eliminate any traffic conflicts and ensure safety of both the commercial aircraft and UAV operating in the area, ULC’s Lead Pilot reviewed JFK airspace charts and applicable Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations prior to the flight and coordinated with the aerial survey group operating further offshore.

Because much of the information that was required to conduct the inspection was provided to ULC only a few days before the event, rapid response and deployment were critical. Two key factors that made this possible were comprehensive pre-flight planning on the part of the UAV pilot and close collaboration between National Grid and ULC’s onsite team.

To ensure safety during the flight, the H1000 Hexacopter was equipped with a communication device that was capable of detecting any manned aircraft in the vicinity. A visual observer (i.e, spotter) with a hand radio was also monitoring the airspace from the ground and relaying to the UAV pilot when air traffic was entering the vicinity.

Results / Benefits:

By conducting multiple UAV flights with the DSLR camera focused on the waters surface, National Grid was able to observe the designated area for signs of leaks from an optimal vantage point. High-resolution 4K video of 25 acres of water surface was recorded and reviewed multiple times, giving National Grid the confidence to “sign off” on the pressure increase as required by NYS DPS regulations. Overall, the UAV-based flight conducted by ULC provided an increased margin of safety over traditional manned inspections using a boat or aircraft. It also enabled National Grid to more efficiently and cost-effectively confirm that the subsea transmission line was free of leaks.

UAV Offshore Pipeline Monitoring

As a “value added” demonstration, ULC offered to conduct an additional UAV flight using a new gas leak sensor being tested in partnership with a leading technology solutions provider. ULC successfully tested the system in September 2017 over a controlled leak, but the flight at Long Beach marked the first run over a gas pipeline.

The gas leak sensor utilized is roughly 1,000 times more sensitive than legacy methods. The sensor’s sophisticated leak detection algorithm combines measurements of gas concentrations, GPS coordinates, and local wind velocity to estimate the location of the leak and eliminate false positives. When installed on the UAV platform, the system is capable of accurately surveying while traveling at higher speeds.

ULC and National Grid developed a flight plan based on current environmental conditions in order to operate downwind of the right-of-way. The data obtained during the flight are currently being reviewed by the sensor manufacturer.