This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode continues our iPIPE series focusing on the vendor’s perspective with John van Pol of Ingu and Sean Donegan of Satelytics, hosted by Russel Treat.
In this episode, you will primarily learn about iPIPE how vendors have had success with interesting technologies through iPIPE. You will also learn about the vendor process, what led John and Sean to participate in the iPIPE program, and their advice for gaining support for technologies you believe are valuable to pipelining.
iPIPE Vendor’s Perspective: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- John van Pol is the founder and CEO of INGU Solutions Inc. Connect with John on LinkedIn.
- INGU developed the Ingu Solutions Pipers® technology to provide oil and gas companies with immediate and affordable access to pipeline assets even in the most challenging conditions. Their revolutionary technology uses miniaturized inline sensors to detect leaks, geometric defects, magnetic anomalies, and deposits that threaten pipeline performance and safety with zero-downtime.
- Pipers is a billiard ball-sized device that moves with the flow through a pipeline, while listening for leaks.
- Sean Donegan is the President and CEO of Satelytics. Connect with Sean on LinkedIn.
- Satelytics is the foremost remote sensing leader with a full staff of Ph.D. level expertise. The company uses proven science, adept software, and powerful technology to meet the toughest business challenges.
- iPIPE (the intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program) is an industry-led consortium whose focus is to contribute to the advancement of near-commercial, emerging technologies to prevent and detect gathering pipeline leaks as the industry advances toward the goal of zero incidents.
- EERC (Energy & Environmental Research Center) is a research, development, demonstration, and commercialization facility for energy and environment technologies development located in Grand Forks, North Dakota. EERC is a leading developer of cleaner, more efficient energy to power the world and environmental technologies to protect and clean our air, water, and soil.
- Jay Almlie is a Principal Engineer at the EERC and a leader of the iPIPE consortium. Connect with Jay on LinkedIn.
- Brian Epperson is the Senior Manager of Environmental & Regulatory at Hess Corporation. Connect with Brian on LinkedIn.
- Governor (Douglas James) Burgum is an American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and politician serving as the 33rd governor of North Dakota since December 15, 2016.
- Leak Detection is the process of monitoring, diagnosing, and addressing a leak in a pipeline to mitigate risks.
- Chromosome Karyotyping is the process by which photographs of chromosomes are taken in order to determine the chromosome complement of an individual, including the number of chromosomes and any abnormalities.
- AFFF is a foam that produces a thin aqueous film based on surface tension which spreads across the surface of the fuel, separating the fuel from oxygen, which suppresses vapor and can quickly extinguish a petroleum fire.
iPIPE Vendor’s Perspective: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 115, sponsored by iPIPE, an industry-led consortium advancing leak detection and leak prevention technologies to eliminate spills as pipeliners move toward zero incidents.
To learn more about iPIPE or to become an iPIPE partner, please visit ipipepartnership.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations. Now your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show that appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Tim Woycik with National Grid. To learn how you can win this signature prize pack, stick around until the end of the episode.
This week we continue our series on iPIPE. We will be getting a vendor’s perspective from participants who have had some success with some very interesting technologies. John Van Pol with INGU and Sean Donegan with Satelytics will be joining us on the Pipeliners Podcast.
John, Sean, welcome to The Pipeliners Podcast.
John Van Pol: A pleasure to be here.
Sean Donegan: Thank you, Russel.
Russel: Before we get into this too deep, I’d like for each of you guys to introduce yourself, maybe tell us a little bit about your background, and how you got into pipelining. If I might ask, John, do you mind going first?
John: Absolutely. I’m John. I’m the founder and CEO of INGU Solutions. We’re a company that does pipeline inspection with a particular focus on leak detection.
It’s actually a little bit coincidental that we got into this business. We were developing sensors that were in robust environments. We were testing them in loop facilities.
A larger operator reached out to us and said this will actually be a very good tool to inspect pipelines. We started to look at that, learned that about 40 percent of the pipelines in the market cannot be inspected with traditional methods. That’s, in our case, literally what got the ball rolling and got us to develop our Pipers technology.
Russel: Interesting. You actually had a pipeline operator reach out to you to say, “Hey, we want to try that.”
John: That is the case.
Russel: That’s interesting. Sean, how about yourself?
Sean: Yes, thanks, Russel. I am the founder and CEO of Satelytics. We’re a software company based in Toledo, Ohio. I personally got into the oil and gas pipeline space…This is the fourth software company that I’ve started or founded along the way. My third company was in chemical management.
That was my first introduction into oil and gas. That was managing the chemical composition and dosage that will go down the oil and gas wells to help prevent some of Mother Nature’s impediments with extraction.
Satelytics, as a company, we started with water, waste water. Our vision was to take satellite data from above the Earth’s surface, using geospatial analytics identify a number of the more challenging problems of pipeliners.
Things like encroachments, leak detection, change detection, land slips, landslides, so that it would drive value. If you spend a dollar and divide it by 10 it’s a whole lot better than spending a dollar. The return is far better. That’s how we got into the pipeline oil and gas space.
Russel: You and I should get offline sometime and talk because I’ve started several software companies, as well. I’m sure we would have plenty of war stories to talk about.
Sean: Yes, I’m sure.
Russel: I asked you guys to come on and talk about iPIPE because you both have participated in the iPIPE partnership. This is the fourth episode in a series. I wanted to get a perspective from a vendor participant about the whole iPIPE process and so forth.
Maybe you guys could tell me a little bit about what led you to iPIPE. How did you find out about it?
John: Starting with iPIPE was similar as to the way we started with our first pipeline operator, kind of pre-iPIPE. Jay was scouting the market for potential solutions for leak detection, reached out to us. He had become aware that technology we were developing and thought it was a good fit.
For us, that was a great opportunity. We just had run our first operational pipelines, but didn’t have that much evidence of the tool being run on operational pipelines. In addition, North Dakota is a state with a lot of gathering pipelines. That’s our sweet spot in the market.
Of course, the opportunity to work with the consortium partners, which are a number of major operators in the U.S.
We got the discussion going with Jay. When the first iPIPE pitch session came, we took the opportunity and pitched our project. Fortunately, we got selected as one of the first companies to participate in the iPIPE program.
Russel: John, tell me a little bit about what is your technology. What does it do? What makes it unique?
John: Our technology, we called it the Pipers. It’s a billiard ball-sized device that literally moves with the flow through a pipeline. We adjust the weight of the device through the specific gravity of the liquid. That ensures that the device is not hindered by any sharp bends or deposits or anything of the sorts.
For the operators, it’s actually fairly easy. The things are activated by a magnet. They drop them into line. Then literally move with the flow through the pipeline. While doing that, they do acoustically listen for leaks. Magnetically, we look at wall loss and wall condition. Then we have pressure sensors that determine whether there are deposits in the line.
With a very easy to deploy and simple tool, operators get a full suite of sensor data at the end of the run. It’s even, let’s say, more advanced than that. We don’t even go into the field. There’s no need for that. They can deploy at their leisure.
Russel: We’re going to have to talk a little bit more about that. [laughs] We’ll get to that. Sean, what led you to iPIPE?
Sean: Where Satelytics comes into play here with iPIPE is it was one of the original ideas that formed iPIPE. We had been speaking with Hess, one of the major players over North Dakota, a particular gentleman called Brian Epperson, about some of our technology and how it could be deployed in the field.
We were well aware that North Dakota is a very forward-thinking state. Governor Burgum is an ex-Microsoft executive and a big fan of using technology. One of the ingredients in our mixing bowl for our software is the data generally comes from satellite, but, of course, it could come from drone or plane.
Hess had said, “Would there be a way to share the most costly data ingredient?” I believe that he has had a long association with EERC and Jay in particular. The foundation of iPIPE formed. Like John said, we made a formal pitch in what I think they affectionately called Shark Tank. We were selected.
Satelytics shines a light on the Earth’s surface or a body of water. What bounces back to those sensors, typically on a satellite, is the light reflectance. If you’re trying to look for liquid hydrocarbon leaks or land movement, landslides, vegetation, encroachments, it has a unique light reflectance. It’s our ability to identify that and many cases measure it.
Over North Dakota, we collect data every week. Literally within two hours, you’ve got the full sets of results with all the alerts and alarms at your fingertips. I personally believe that there is no other model in the world that is as capable or has shown in a forward operating, real-life environment like iPIPE.
We are thrilled to have been a participant. I’m sure with John it’s been a fabulous exposure for both software and for the participants, from our perspective.
Russel: Let me get this straight. This is like “Star Trek” and a sensor. You send energy. You read back. You know what’s going on.
Sean: Yeah, a little bit like that.
Sean: We use the major satellite companies. I know it gets the oohs and ahs. It’s the first software company where it’s a fabulous dinner time story. Yes, beam me up.
Russel: Years ago, I worked with a guy that was one of the pioneering image analysis mathematicians with NASA. They took the technology developed at NASA and applied it to chromosome karyotyping, which is taking an electron microscope and looking for malformed chromosomes. They did some really amazing stuff.
I got to get deep into how that technology worked. I could only imagine how far we’ve come. The idea of doing that from space, it’s…I consider myself a Bubba geek. That’s a good thing. This is like the high end of Bubba geekdom.
Sean: We live on the edge of Lake Erie, Toledo, Ohio. As I like to tease people, it’s the 751st most-visited city in the nation. Where we started life, looking at wastewater, was looking at toxic algae bloom, phosphorus phycocyanin, and chlorophyll a. That makes up this green algae bloom. We’re able to identify it from our analytics and also measure it in parts per billion.
The next natural fit for us was in other industries, sectors like oil and gas, that had large infrastructure geographically spread and some of the world’s most challenging problems, not to forget the fact that it’s a fairly heavily-regulated industry.
Russel: John, if I might come back to you, I want to explore a little bit more about this idea of a billiard ball that you run in a pipeline. It’s my understanding that you don’t send a single sensor. You tend to send a group of them. Is that correct?
John: You send one sensor at a time, but we do typically two runs per pipeline screening. The reason for that is that allows us to distinguish between, let’s say, flow or production dynamics versus things that are going on in the pipeline.
As an individual sensor, they have all the capabilities they need to assess the line, but sometimes operators are interested in particular flow dynamics or pressure gradients over the line. To distinguish them very carefully, we typically do two runs with a 15-minute launch interval apart.
Russel: You’re actually getting the pressure profile of the pipeline as you run one of these billiard ball size tools?
John: That is correct. If you look at the sensor suite, we have a pressure sensor in there that takes 100 measurements per second. That means we have a very good spatial resolution on pressure. Because it’s free-floating the pressure is not hindered by friction or anything of that sort. As far as we are aware, this is the only instrument out there that can get the actual pressure in the pipeline.
In addition, we measure magnetic acceleration and rotation. We take 400 measurements per second with those in three axes. Then we do 20 kilohertz audio. We literally listen to the pipeline.
Russel: That is a lot of data to be capturing in a billiard ball.
John: That is correct. We do about 4 gigs of data per run.
Russel: Wow. This kind of stuff is just fascinating to me. I can see why an organization like iPIPE would be interested in trying to actually get people like you to participate. Why did you guys decide to participate? What was appealing about the iPIPE process for you guys?
Sean: Russel, from a Satelytics perspective, what was appealing was it gave us an opportunity to meet a very large group. As John has already said, North Dakota’s got a very concentrated area. I believe it’s the second-largest basin in the United States.
From our perspective, one of the most important factors about iPIPE was that it was an opportunity outside of a petri dish and outside of our own experiments to put our software to work in a real forward operating area with real results, good feedback from the participants.
From that perspective alone, I don’t think there’s another situation or setup like it in the world. It was hands-on, a chance to really push the limits and see how robust of a product we built.
As you mentioned about data, we’re talking about terabytes and terabytes of data at a time. We wanted to set ourselves a goal that within a couple of hours, you as a participant would have alerts and alarms to the conditions that you’ve said are outside the thresholds and that you could act on them. From our perspective, it was really that forward operating response.
Russel: One of the things I often say in our business is that it’s fairly easy to test functionality. What’s hard to do is to test scale and to test constraints. You can only really do that in a real operation. That makes a lot of sense, John, same question, why did you guys decide to participate?
John: The big difference with what Satelytics is doing is that we are in the pipeline. We are in a very critical and very important infrastructure. Of course, operators are not that easy in putting things in their pipeline.
To make it a little bit anecdotal, initially, three years ago, when we proposed that we were going to put plastic balls in operational pipelines, people were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s maybe far in the future, but that’s not going to happen.”
We were very fortunate that groups like Chevron were very supportive of the technology and that we got some traction. What was for us important is to prove that, let’s say, a plastic ball, the device we developed, the Piper, is actually a very robust, a very reliable tool to measure the condition and the leaks in a pipeline. What we needed is evidence.
People running them giving us a vote of confidence and showing that these things come out the way they go in. The data is always there. The data is actually very valuable for the operator. For us, it was a way to get operators to try, let’s say, a technology that is very, very disruptive for the inline inspection market.
Russel: This is thematic in the conversations I’ve been having about iPIPE, is that opportunity for a technology to get into a real pipeline operation and be used with the boots on the ground is unique. It’s extremely valuable. It’s hard to get there.
Sean: Russel, one of the challenges John and I would both face, just to add to something you just said, that is that we can develop very clever things. As you said, trying it, but what you also need are willing participants.
If you look at the way that iPIPE was structured, what you get back — I’m sure John would agree with this — we get feedback that is almost instantaneous as to how accurate and what we were finding.
That we feed back. From our perspective, we’re using artificial intelligence to teach the algorithms, because you want them to become smarter and smarter. The more data they inhale, the better.
You have to applaud and put an awful lot of thanks to the participants in iPIPE because they’re doing two jobs. They’re doing what they do today. They’re also willing to participate in trying new opportunities for the pipeliners of tomorrow, if you will.
Russel: I agree with that absolutely. What investment is required of you as a vendor? What are you guys putting up in terms of money and resources to be able to participate?
John: If I look on our end, the way to look at the Pipers — that’s an aspect we haven’t touched on — we consider them actually as a commodity. This is a single-use tool. You run it through the line. That’s it.
The reason we do that is these things have a very high safety rating. We don’t want to run any risk on the tool. That means on the capital investment side, there are no costs on our end other than the tool itself.
Our investment is essentially that rather than in a commercial situation, where we would charge our data science, our data analysis costs to our customer, you do a 50/50 split. We invest time on our side, on our costs, to learn from the projects, to work with the operators, as Sean correctly said, to process the feedback, and to improve what we’re doing.
Part of that is compensated to the iPIPE program. I really perceived it as a partnership as well in terms of how we develop as in terms of how we share the costs.
Russel: Really, your investment is the labor, the effort to run the program and whatever consumables are involved in your technology.
John: Correct, but predominantly labor, which is for an early stage company, by the way, our largest cost. That is a significant investment to make. Indeed, on our end it’s predominantly the data scientists that are training the algorithms, developing the machine learning code to more efficiently analyze the data and continuously improve our detection capability.
Russel: Sean, do you have anything to add to that?
Sean: Yes. This will be our third year that we’ve participated. Slightly different to John because obviously John has got a product that he developed. From our perspective, it’s an ever-growing basket of challenges that we’re looking for. Today, it could be oil leaks and landslips, landslides, encroachments.
One of the challenges that we’re faced with, particularly the North Dakota basin, was detecting salinity on land and water, often found in produced water. Many of your audience may know already that cleaning up salinity or brine or that sodium content, on land or water is even more challenging often than liquid leak and hydrocarbon cleanup.
We promised, as part of an in-kind investment, and we spent about $482,281.35, not to be precise, in the first year of our investment. We see, as John said, it’s a great partnership.
We decided to put our money where our mouth was and invest on some challenging problems they had there locally with the feedback that the team and the members of iPIPE would know where these locations were that would help us develop an algorithm, and then help us with the data collection in order to quantify that salinity on land and water.
There’s a good example of what we call in-kind investment, hard dollars.
Russel: What did you learn? Really, the question is more interesting if I ask it this way. What did you learn that you had no ability to foresee that you’d be learning in that area?
John: From our perspective, I don’t think there was something that we really had no idea in foreseeing that we would learn. For us, it’s very much getting experience in the field, understanding how the field crews work. Keep in mind we don’t deploy the tools. This is an inline inspection tool that an operator deploys themselves.
For us, it’s very important to understand what are the constraints, what can they do, what can’t they do, how do we brief them, and how do we make sure that if they activate our tool themselves — they put the Pipers in the line, they extract them — that everything is actually going according to the ideas we had in mind.
It was more like continuously we had a hypothesis of how that would work. We would brief the operators. They would do that. There might be a glitch here or there. Then the continuous improvement and optimizing how we remotely could make sure that any deployment would go well.
Russel: No small thing, by the way, to have somebody else launching your tool and having that all turn out the way it needs turn out. Just getting clear about what you need to do to train and equip those other people to do that effectively, I could see that being…I don’t want to say it’s complicated, but you need to be very thorough and deliberate about it.
John: Especially in the first stage. We have to learn which questions to ask, what to be very careful with, understand how their basic processes work. Now, at this stage where we have the experience, where we have an initial training session with the operators, we actually understand that they pick up very fast what they need to do.
They love the aspect that they are not bound to a certain time when there’s a crew coming and that they have to deploy, but that they can actually shift it with an hour or with a day because production is going differently.
Now that we’ve done close to 150 operational deployments, and we’re now at a stage where we see people actually love the ease of use and the fact that they’re completely in control when to run the tool.
Russel: Sean, what would you have to add to that in terms of your learning?
Sean: First of all, Russel, we needed a bigger catapult to get the satellite into space. We had too small a catapult. I’m just kidding. The one thing we did learn, we all sit in offices where we have great Internet connections, great cellphone coverage. Then when you’re really in the field in oil and gas, what you find is you have neither of those things.
One of the ways that we present the results, the alerts, and the alarms is that we present a very visual view as well as an alert, an alarm condition that the customer determines. One of the challenges with that is when you send people out into the field to either remedy, investigate, or all of the above, they need a tool too.
The second year — we talk about this in-kind investment — one of the things we learned very clearly was that we needed to develop something that would most likely operate on a mobile phone rather than a tablet or a browser because most people, you can assume, have a smartphone. We had to assume that there was no Internet connection and incredibly poor cell service.
One of the things of practically putting something into the field was what set of tools do those individuals in the field who do a lot of the hard lifting, what do they need in order to make the assessment, return back data in a very simple form so that when they return back to their car, hotel, office, it would synch up all the data?
One of the derivatives that came out of it was literally developing a Satelytics software suite for the non-connected world, in this case particularly the smartphone in the field.
Russel: Being a software guy, I know what that means. That is no small thing.
Sean: No, lots of challenges. When you have, as we affectionately call them, some very smart propellerheads, they come up with solutions quickly. Then of course when you’ve got a customer that’s willing to work with you and to try it to make sure it works and does it fit their needs, then it just makes the process so much easier.
Russel: No doubt. We’ve kind of already answered this question. One of the questions I had down that I wanted to ask is “How does what you learned and what you did with iPIPE, how does that relate to your ability to make your product, make your solution commercial?”
John: In our case, it’s all about gaining experience, learning what the Pipers measure through their run. Nobody collected this type of data before us. We have to learn essentially how to translate the data into pipeline condition, pipeline safety. The more examples we get, the better it is for us.
Where a program like iPIPE helps us is that it gives us much more data. We can retune or refine our algorithms. In addition, we can mention that we work with the operators, that we were selected for the program. That gives a certain level of credibility.
Then, of course, it’s the deployment and the field experience we get. It’s that combination that helps to accelerate growth, especially for an early stage company.
Sean: Satelytics is no different to that. The experience you get being in a real live environment, I’m not sure that you can put a price on it. I’m sure, like many others who’ve participated, it’s not easy to do two jobs in the field. It was always phenomenal when we got feedback.
The big pluses for Satelytics was it got us a chance to refine our process from data capture to giving you the customer the results. We’ve got that down to just a few hours, which by any measure is extraordinary, particularly when you think about we’re covering some 1,000 square kilometers.
In fact, that’s leading to where we’re going to monitor the basin up in North Dakota every week, which will be a magnitude of some 40,000 square kilometers every single week, which is extraordinary.
There are a couple of elements that we’ve learned as a company. One, that even though we thought perhaps we cracked the top five challenges that faced the pipeliners in the field, what we’ve learned is that this is an ever-increasing basket, meaning that we’ve got to try and continually stay ahead with developing algorithms that help the next set of problems that come up.
One that springs to mind immediately is we’ve got this initiative right now with the firefighting foam, AFFF, which is a fairly unhealthy carcinogenic bioaccumulative. Trying to identify that and quantify that is just another one of those many challenges that you might face along the way as a pipeliner.
To sum it up in total, it’s phenomenal feedback. I don’t need to hear that we’ve got a great product. I need to know where the weaknesses are and how we need to improve that.
Listening very closely to those customers in the field lets you produce something, like I said, where we learned very quickly that we needed a tool that didn’t rely on connectivity, but still delivered the right set of data to the customer in the field.
Russel: Absolutely. From the outside looking in and as a vendor myself, the thing I see more than anything else is this is an accelerator. There’s just a whole lot of opportunity to have real-world, practical experience that might take years to occur that you might get done in a year. That’s a big deal, particularly if you’re early stage.
Sean: Russel, one of the things that with subsequent meetings around iPIPE this can’t be said enough either. The North Dakota political basis, so Governor Burgum and people like Lynn Helms, these see the oil and gas operators as their customers.
I’ve traveled around an awful lot all over the world. It’s really refreshing to see the people that are regulating the industry also seeing them as customers and promoting it. That’s an invaluable environment for creativity, for new technologies, and to spark new ideas, in my view.
Russel: It takes effective collaboration between the regulators and the operators and the vendors and all the stakeholders. It takes effective collaboration to actually get where we want to get to…
Sean: Hear, hear.
Russel: …which is zero incidents. That’s where we’re all striving to get to. Gentlemen, what advice would you give to others that are out there that have technologies that they think might be valuable to pipelining?
John: From our prospective, particularly looking at iPIPE, what we would have done differently in hindsight is better define what we want to get out of it and how to do that. iPIPE, the consortium was building. This was the first time that the North Dakota operators were dealing with a project or consortium of this nature.
On the other end, although we wanted to gain experience, we didn’t have a really very clear focus. For instance, we want to see these types of pipelines or these sizes of leaks or something of the sort.
My recommendation would be this is a very valuable program that gives you additional resources, financially additional resources in terms of access to an infrastructure or access to operators. Make sure that you know what you want to get out of that in the end that brings the most value. There could have been an optimization step for us in that process.
Sean: John is right on, Russel, with focus. He used the word focus. One thing that we have learned, and others, is that you want to stay very focused on the challenges you’re trying to solve. We never want to come across as an inch deep and a mile wide. We really, really want to understand the space that we’re in.
When we first ventured into oil and gas, particularly iPIPE, what it gave access to was this learning curve. Where are the weaknesses? Where are the holes? Anybody going into it that think they have the second coming or the next best thing to sliced bread, I would say, “Keep your mouth shut. Use your two ears. Do a lot more listening than you do talking.”
You’ve got a group there, particularly with iPIPE so ably led by Jay Almlie. What I think you’ve got is a group of people that will give you very honest feedback.
My advice is see them as the trusted friend that you could never have, a QA lab that could never be more accommodating to give you feedback, to give you good direction. You will benefit in the long term as you move your product through its steps to full commercialization.
Russel: Gentleman, I really appreciate you coming on and talking about your experience with iPIPE. I’ve got to say I’m very interested to hear about each of your technologies. They sound quite compelling and cutting edge and new and different, all those kinds of things. Thanks for coming on board. I really appreciate it.
Sean: Thank you, Russel, super to be with you.
John: Thanks, Russel. It was a pleasure being on the podcast.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with John Van Pol and Sean Donegan. Just a reminder before you go you should register to win our Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you would be interested in, please let me know on the Contact Us page at pipelinerspodcast.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords