A Dutch start-up has developed a system that enables monitoring oil and gas pipelines from space

Oil pipeline monitoring from space improves leak detection

A tablet app developed by a Dutch company allows oil and gas pipeline operators to monitor underground pipelines using data from Earth-observation satellites, providing better leak detection accuracy than aerial surveys.

The app, dubbed PIMSyS by Dutch company Orbital Eye, collects radar data from Europe’s Sentinel satellites, part of the Copernicus Earth observation programme, and runs them through special software that automatically detects ground movement and other potential issues.

The system detects problems reliably despite the fact that the pipelines are about 1.5m under the surface.

“We have been using Sentinel-1A imagery since the satellite was launched, and the results have been very positive,” said Jan Ridder, Managing Director at Orbital Eye.

“Currently, Sentinel-1A data are refreshed on average once every 12 days. Initially, some operators prefer a higher frequency, but once they start using the system they find that the current rate is adequate in many cases.”

The firm said that a ‘major’ African pipeline operator had already signed up for the service.

Traditionally, the operators would use helicopters to monitor their networks but reliability has been a major issue. The aerial surveys only spot about 17 per cent of problems while 37 per cent is usually reported by the public.

The PIMSyS app, which connects to a central database via terrestrial networks and satellite communication links, generates automated alerts in case of a potential problem. The operator using the app can subsequently dispatch a ground team to check on the situation.

Orbital Eye says the service will become more accurate and widely available as the European Space Agency (ESA) expands the Sentinel satellite network.

The second satellite of the constellation, Sentinel-1B, launched on 25 April, will cover Asia, Africa and the USA and allow capturing images of every particular area more frequently.

The Copernicus programme offers data for free. The radar imagery captured by the satellites sees the Earth’s surface regardless of weather or the time of the day when the image was captured.

Gas pipes in the EU alone stretch 140,000 km, another 40,000 km carry oil and related products. Almost half of all failures in high-pressure gas transmission pipelines in Europe are caused by excavations, construction work and deep ploughing.

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