Drone inspections of natural gas pipelines may soon be reality
Drones may be able to detect incipient leaks in underground natural gas pipelines, and even prevent them, once technical and regulatory hurdles have been resolved.
Officials cited corrosion as a factor in a natural gas pipeline explosion that rocked Salem last year. But Conshocken-based drone entrepreneur David Yoel, a presenter at this week's Pennsylvania Aviation Conference in Greensburg, noted most pipeline leaks are caused by a third party mistakenly digging into the line with heavy equipment.
Yoel's company, American Aerospace Technologies, is developing sensors for a long-range drone that could conduct a fly-by inspection of a pipeline corridor from a height of 1,000 feet or more, picking up signs of machinery digging too closely or of leaking methane.
“With an infrared camera, we can detect the heat signatures of active machinery, and we can see the machinery very clearly,” Yoel said. “We're also testing algorithms that can detect machinery.”
The specially equipped drone also can look for tire tracks and other signs of unwanted, potentially hazardous activity on a pipeline right of way.
“We're testing in the range between 1,000 and 2,000 feet,” he said. At that height, “You can get a wider field of view and can see the entire width of the corridor.”
According to Yoel, sensors that “sniff” leaking methane aren't much use beyond a few dozen feet above the ground. But he said his company is working with Princeton University to equip drones with a multi-spectral sensor that could spot the mid-range infrared glow of escaping methane.
“What we're working on, a little bit further out, is finding small leaks before they become big leaks,” he said.
Yoel's firm completed a trial pipeline inspection in Virginia last year, and he's hoping soon to bring his forward-looking drone applications home to Pennsylvania.
Because drones are required to remain within the line of sight of an operator, a manned chase plane followed the drone used in the Virginia test run.
Yoel acknowledged that's a hurdle to making the aerial inspection commercially viable, having a fuel-greedy plane along for the ride with the relatively lightweight, efficient drone.
He's looking forward to a change in Federal Aviation Administration rules, phasing in use of Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast equipment that will allow aircrafts to detect each other in flight, using satellite signals. In 2020, that equipment will be mandatory for craft flying in most controlled airspace.
Yoel said he's most excited about the potential of using drones to assist in emergencies. In June, his company partnered with Verizon to deploy a mobile cell site on a drone, providing wireless communications for first responders in Cape May County, N.J., during a mock hurricane that would have disabled ground-based cell equipment.
He's hoping Pennsylvania's emergency responders will also want to try out the drone technology.
“I'd welcome the opportunity to work with them to develop an understanding of these capabilities and potentially use them in disasters in Pennsylvania,” he said.
More recently, one of his company's drones, equipped with a mapping and sensor payload, was used to review property damage from Hurricane Irma over a 100-mile stretch of the Florida Keys.