This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features first-time guest Rodney Ring of Drone Worx discussing how drones can be used in the pipeline industry to support pipeline patrol.
In this episode, you will learn about the latest technological advancements using drones in industrial settings, how drones can be deployed along a pipeline right-of-way, the positive outcomes from using drones to support pipeline patrol, the role of PHMSA approving drones for visual patrol of right-of-ways, what’s next for the technology, and more.
Drones for Pipeline Patrol: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- Rodney Ring is the founder and operations manager of DroneWorx. Connect with Rodney on LinkedIn.
- DroneWorx is a drone service provider that is innovating and developing industrial applications using proprietary software to support industries such as oil and gas pipeline.
- Photogrammetry is a combination of science and technology to record, measure, and interpret photographic images and patterns using electromagnetic radiant imagery.
- Pix4D makes software solutions for professional drone-based mapping. Their photogrammetry software uses images to generate models.
- DroneDeploy is a leader in cloud-based photogrammetry software for commercial drones.
- DJI produces camera drones and stabilizers used for civilian drones and aerial imaging technology. The company makes aerial photography and filmmaking equipment and platforms accessible for commercial and industrial purposes.
- LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges to the earth.
- FLIR OGI (Optical Gas Imaging) cameras can be used to survey wide areas that are typically hard to reach with traditional measurement tools.
- DOT (Department of Transportation) is a cabinet-level agency of the federal government responsible for helping maintain and develop the nation’s transportation systems and infrastructure.
- EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) is an independent organization within the federal U.S. government designed to take measures to protect people and the environment.
- PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) is the federal agency within USDOT responsible for providing pipeline safety oversight through regulatory rulemaking, NTSB recommendations, and other important functions to protect people and the environment through the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials.
- The Operator Qualification Rule (OQ Rule) refers to the 49 CFR Parts 192 and 195 requirements for pipeline operators to develop a qualification program to evaluate an individual’s ability to react to abnormal operating conditions (AOCs) that may occur while performing tasks.
- HCA (High-Consequence Areas) are defined by PHMSA as a potential impact zone that contains 20 or more structures intended for human occupancy or an identified site. PHMSA identifies how pipeline operators must identify, prioritize, assess, evaluate, repair, and validate the integrity of gas transmission pipelines that could, in the event of a leak or failure, affect HCAs.
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates all aspects of civil aviation in the United States and surrounding international waters. Its powers include the construction and operation of airports, air traffic management, the certification of personnel and aircraft, and the protection of U.S. assets during the launch or re-entry of commercial space vehicles.
- Part 107 Test is required by the FAA to become a drone pilot. In order to fly the drone under the FAA’s Small UAS Rule (Part 107), users must obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA. This certificate demonstrates an understanding of regulations, operating requirements, and procedures for safely flying drones.
- API (American Petroleum Institute) represents all segments of America’s natural gas and oil industry. API has developed more than 700 standards to enhance operational and environmental safety, efficiency, and sustainability.
- API 2021 Pipeline, Control Room And Cybernetics Conference included a presentation by Byron Coy of PHMSA regarding their timeline for inspecting pipeline control rooms.
Drones for Pipeline Patrol: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 180, sponsored by P.I. Confluence, providing software and implementation expertise for pipeline program governance applied to operations, Pipeline Safety Management, and compliance, using process management software to connect program to implementation. Find out more about P.I. Confluence at piconfluence.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 the appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener each episode. This week, our winner is Maki Stapleton with NiSource. Congratulations. Your YETI is on its way.
This week, Rodney Ring with DroneWorx is joining us. We’re going to talk about how drones are really being applied in the pipeline industry to do pipeline patrol. Rodney, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
Rodney Ring: Hi, Russel. Thanks for having me.
Russel: I’m glad you’re here because I’m going to get to geek out on another subject of interest for me. I asked you to come on to talk about drones and drones in pipelining. Maybe the best way to get started is to tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into drones and how you got into pipelining.
Rodney: I enlisted in the Army when I was 17, served multiple combat tours. I was tired of being on the ground. When I returned back to the United States, I went to school to fly helicopters and, after that, discovered oil and gas. I served in a variety of roles there — from design management, engineering management, materials requisition, pipeline and facility inspection.
In 2016, I found that drones were a really powerful tool in the engineering and design process.
Russel: How so? That’s an interesting remark to me. How are drones an important tool in engineering and design?
Rodney: A lot of times, engineers are working out of a division office that’s not close to the field. It’s difficult to get out and review field conditions and review the facility. At that time, we were using drones to assist in the layout, to capture some high-resolution imagery, and be able to utilize that in the division-level office.
Russel: Interesting. What did you learn? What were you doing with the imagery? How would you use it in that role?
Rodney: That’s evolved a lot. Early on, it was pretty basic how we used that technology. We would actually lay out yardsticks. This was before the big boom of photogrammetry software where you could stitch together georeferenced images and actually have a scale document.
We would take an image from 400 feet in the air, lay yardsticks all over the site. That’s what we would use to scale that image into a drawing set.
Russel: That’s fascinating. [laughs] That’s very creative. Did you come up with that idea or did somebody give you that idea?
Rodney: No, that was just something…I needed to find a way to scale those images. That seemed like the best solution at the time.
Russel: What time frame were you doing this, Rodney?
Rodney: I started drone work in late 2015 and started incorporating it into the engineering and design process in the middle of 2016, before you had to have a license.
Russel: Yeah, right. Exactly. That’s interesting. We’ll get to that here in a bit. That’s early on. That’s really not that long ago, but in terms of drone technology, that’s early on. That technology’s been advancing very, very fast.
Rodney: I agree. It’s pretty amazing what drones are capable of doing these days.
Russel: That’s a great segue. What kind of things are you doing with drones now? You talked a little bit about, what did you say, a photogrammetry software? What do you do with drones that you weren’t able to do back in 2015-2016?
Rodney: Outside of the advancements in the hardware, there’s been tremendous growth on the software side of things. Companies like Pix4D and DroneDeploy have developed platforms that will automate the drone flight. You upload the data or process that data on your machine into a single map. It’s a georeferenced map that’s already scaled.
It also creates point clouds, which enable you to do 3D models. It’s pretty amazing how technology has advanced, especially over the last two years. The sensors are still advancing today. DJI is getting ready to release a new LiDAR scanner that’s capable of measuring elevations precisely and replacing a lot of the survey work that we’re currently doing on the ground.
We use drones for that survey work. We do a lot of asset inspections. We can do leak surveys using a laser methane detector. We can do emissions surveys, which use a FLIR OGI camera for EPA tank emissions surveys. We re-create 3D models of the maps that we create using that photogrammetry software.
Russel: I would assume you could do 3D models of facilities, as well.
Rodney: Yes, sir. Some of that requires some ground capture, as well, just to get a good detail of the piping and things that are difficult to capture from the air. We do quite a bit of facility modeling, as well.
Russel: Interesting. You mentioned a little earlier that you started in drones before the requirement of a pilot’s license. What do you have to do to get a drone pilot license? What is involved in that?
Rodney: To preface that question, if you are using a drone for recreational purposes, you actually don’t require a license at all. Anybody can go pick up a drone, pull it out of the box, and fly that drone for recreational purposes.
If you’re using a drone for compensation or in a business application, you’re required to take a Part 107 exam, which is just a written test, and register in the FAA pilots database.
Russel: That’s basically ground school, if you were going to get a pilot’s license? Would that be correct?
Rodney: Not quite as in-depth as manned aircraft ground school would be. It goes over the basics of the airspace. It goes over sectional charts, which is a map that pilots use to navigate in the air to identify hazards. It goes over the requirements that are specific to drone pilots. How high you can fly, what visibility requirements you have. Then it digs in a little bit into air traffic and night operations, as well.
Russel: Basically, enough to know how to avoid hazards and how to not be a hazard.
Rodney: Yes, sir. That’s correct.
Russel: That is not what I understood, because when I first looked at that I was thinking that it would be ground school. If you’re going to go get a Cessna 152 and you want to get a pilot’s license for that, you’re going to spend 40 hours in ground school before you’re ready to take a test, at least. It’s not that intense.
Rodney: No, it’s not. A lot of the aviation weather isn’t really touched on much. The instrumentation.
Russel: Communications with air traffic control and that kind of stuff would not be required for a drone pilot.
Rodney: That’s exactly right.
Russel: Interesting. That significantly lowers the bar there.
Rodney: I actually hope, in the future, it gets a little more stringent. We operate a lot in the Denver area. There’s a high volume of air traffic at times. Everybody at DroneWorx has some manned aircraft flight experience. They understand what they’re doing in the traffic pattern. They understand the altitudes that they’re going to be flying at.
I think that’s what enables us to fly between three airports to capture a pipeline right-of-way without presenting risks to manned aircraft pilots.
Russel: You just said it. You said a mouthful right there. I spent four and a half years in the Air Force. I was not a pilot, but if you’re in the Air Force you learn a whole lot about aviation, just by the nature of being in the Air Force.
Based on the way you’re describing this, I don’t think it would take me that much work to get prepped to take a drone pilot test.
Rodney: Most people, especially without any aviation background or knowledge, can pick up a book and prepare for this test in about three weeks.
Russel: You mentioned doing pipeline patrols. Let’s talk a little bit about pipeline patrol because this is something I find absolutely fascinating. In terms of a forward-look and how our business is going to be run 10 or 15 years from now, I think drones are going to be a real game-changer for the pipeline operators. What does PHMSA require in a patrol?
Rodney: We’re talking about a visual patrol of a right-of-way for a PHMSA jurisdictional line. PHMSA has the same requirements regardless of how that patrol is performed. You can perform that patrol in manned aircraft, with a drone, on foot, or in a vehicle.
The main things that you’ll be looking for, what’s required in that patrol, is you must be able to identify potential leaks, erosion and settling, and construction activity. You must include markings and flags for potential underground work, downed pipeline markers, vegetation overgrowth, and any other factor that could affect the safety and operation of the pipeline.
Russel: I would assume that there’s OQ requirements for that. Would that be correct?
Rodney: Yes, sir. That is correct. This falls under the operations of the DOT-regulated line. Any person performing this inspection is required to be OQ or operator qualified as dictated by the pipeline operator, the owner.
Russel: It raises an interesting question for me. If I am a drone operator and I’m properly OQ’ed to do pipeline patrol, what does that look like? Do I fly the drone and monitor the video as I’m flying the drone? Do I have to capture the video and do some back-office process?
I know that when you’re in a vehicle, you’re driving and you’re making notes, and probably taking photographs, right? The same thing if you’re on foot. If you’re on foot you might be carrying some kind of locating device, or some kind of sniffing device, or something like that.
What is the process when you’re flying a drone? Is it any different than aircraft?
Rodney: That’s a great question. I think we’re leading the way in what you should include in a patrol as a drone operator. We currently use a dual payload system so that we can have an inspection camera as well as a camera that’s mapping. We’re doing two functions at the same time while we’re in the air.
Our inspection camera is a high-powered, 128-hour zoom. In the event that we identify an issue on the right-of-way, all we have to do is click our screen to zoom in and we can take additional imagery and geotag that issue, as well.
PHMSA requires, if there are issues, they don’t even require imagery. It’s a good practice, in my mind, to capture that imagery and document those conditions because any issue that you do identify has to be addressed by the pipeline operator.
If you capture imagery during the inspection, then you can capture imagery after it’s been addressed. It makes the documentation process that much easier.
Russel: I recently attended the API Pipeline Control Room workshop and was listening to Byron Coy present what’s been going on with PHMSA control room inspections. Most of their deficiency findings were related to inadequacies of documentation.
Then, later in the week, I had a conversation with some pipeline control room managers and asked the question, “What are they experiencing?” Pretty much unanimously what they said is in the control room a few years ago, they were looking at your program. Now, they’re actually looking at the implementation, and digging deep, and getting into the documents.
I say all that to say it’s easy to gloss over the documentation. Getting the documentation, and getting it right, and having it easy to find is critical in this kind of process.
Rodney: Absolutely critical. We work with DOT auditors and the PHMSA safety office quite a bit. We found the same thing is true in the visual patrol space. A lot of operators have found themself deficient. If they do identify an issue, well, how did you record you resolving that issue? At what date, what time was it resolved? What were the conditions after that issue was resolved?
Russel: Yeah, exactly. Is there any difference between what you would do with a drone and what you would do with an aircraft?
Rodney: Yes, there’s actually quite a bit of difference here in the different methods of performing these inspections. In an aircraft, you will have, obviously, a commercial-rated pilot. You will also have to have an OQ-certified individual in the aircraft to do a visual inspection of the right-of-way.
They’re using, in some cases, maybe binoculars or some sort of optic to get a closer look at the right-of-way, but the challenge there is, both in fixed-wing and helicopters, you can only go so slow and fly so low before you present a risk to yourself and to others on the ground.
It’s a delicate balance, especially in a fixed-wing aircraft, an airplane, to fly low enough to be able to see a 2” paint marking on the ground and fly slow enough that you can capture that without stalling the aircraft and getting into an emergency situation.
Russel: Right. Fixed-wing aircraft don’t hover and take photographs.
Rodney: No, not quite. Not yet, anyway.
Russel: Exactly. I guess one of the points you’re making, and I think this really important to understand, is that aircraft have a minimum flight level. That impacts what they can get in the way of photography or images. Photography’s kind of the wrong word in this day and age because all this stuff is really sensors and images. There are different kinds of images. That’s a whole ‘nother conversation for a podcast another time.
Rodney: Yeah, I know. That is a great point. Fixed-wing aircraft has a much more difficult time than rotorcraft will. A rotorcraft has the ability to hover. They can fly as low as they want to, as long as they can safely land the helicopter. That’s the only FAA requirement for elevation.
That also doesn’t change the fact that they still impact others on the ground. They still impact property owners. They still distract drivers. A drone’s a little smaller in the air, a little more difficult to see. I do think that rotorcraft is a good solution, but it depends on the circumstances and your proximity to people and structures.
Russel: That’s right. Certainly, flying a drone in a High-Consequence Area (HCA) where there’s a lot of people and potential encroachment and so forth makes a lot of sense.
One of the questions I wanted to ask you about actually is…When you’re dealing with a patrol of a pipeline that’s in a rural area and has a lot of mileage involved, one of the challenges as I understand the FAA rules for drones, you can only fly them to line of sight. How do you do a patrol for a rural pipeline when there’s a lot of mileage involved?
Rodney: That’s another excellent question. You’re exactly right. Any drone operator that does not have a waiver from the FAA is required to maintain visual line of sight of the aircraft. We find that that’s possible with our drones. Between 4,000 and 5,000 feet is really the maximum distance that we can achieve while maintaining visual line of sight.
We operate much larger drones than most people are used on the consumer side. In those rural areas, they’re often sparsely populated. You’re actually able to operate a drone from a moving vehicle in sparsely populated areas.
For large pipeline systems that we patrol — that are in those sparsely populated areas — we’ll have a visual observer that’s driving the vehicle and assisting when we stop and battery changes and some other smaller tasks. Then you’ll have the OQ-certified pilot that is piloting the drone from the vehicle.
Russel: Interesting. I would assume that if you’re doing it that way, you don’t necessarily have to drive in the right-of-way. You just have to be close enough to it that you have line of sight and can fly the drone.
Rodney: That’s exactly right. It’s very rare that we have to access a right-of-way or access private property to perform these patrols. There are some cases where we’ll exceed that maximum visual line of sight distance, and we will have to get on to the right-of-way to capture that, but it’s uncommon.
In the 150 mile system we’re doing up here, we do that inspection in a single day, and there’s only two points on it that we have to access the right-of-way in order to maintain line of sight of the aircraft.
Russel: Interesting. Given the fact you’re flying a drone, you can get that thing as low as you needed to do to get it, and you can get very high-resolution photos of whatever features you’re trying to capture, I would think.
Rodney: It’s a really great benefit, especially if you identify a potential issue on the right-of-way, and you want to get a closer look to see if that small hole is a potential leak that’s eroding to the surface. You can fly down to 15, 20 feet above that leak and get a closer look.
Another added benefit to drone operations is we’re in the air and on the ground simultaneously. If we need to go get eyes on an issue that we believe is urgent, we can also drive over to that point and take a closer look in person.
Russel: Actually, get on the right-of-way if you need to evaluate something that you find?
Rodney: Yes, sir.
Russel: This brings me to “What would it take to question?” In my world, in the control room, if there is a leak alarm or if there is a leak report that’s phoned in, it almost always comes into the control room. In that case, they have systems they can check, but ultimately, they’ve got to send somebody out to have a look. Occasionally, that even requires an aircraft patrol that they have to get dispatched on an emergency basis to do a flight inspection of a long run of pipeline.
That’s not the kind of thing currently that anybody’s doing with a drone. I mean that as a question. Are you aware of anybody doing that kind of thing with drones?
Rodney: Not at this time. Drones, especially used in the visual patrol process, we have the ability to broadcast or livestream to the pipeline operators. In the event that an urgent issue is detected, such as control room wants to get eyes on the issue, as long as we have cell coverage, which we don’t always have, but in most cases, we do, we’re able to livestream that feed from the drone to the control room.
Russel: Basically anyplace where they have an Internet browser and a log-in, right?
Rodney: That’s exactly right.
Russel: That’s interesting, but it’s the reverse of the question I’m asking. I’m aware of some people that are doing research with drones that are both fixed-wing and quadcopter. In other words, they can do vertical takeoff and landing, but they can fly in straight flight, getting the lift on the wings and achieve higher speeds.
The problem with that is primarily…It’s an FAA regulatory problem because there’s no reason from a technical standpoint you can’t fly a drone fully autonomously or fully remotely. Even lock that drone inside of a geofence and say inside this geofence we can fly these drones.
Do you have an opinion about how far we are as an industry from getting to that type of thing?
Rodney: I would expect that within the next five years we’ll get beyond the visual line of sight requirements. You’ll start seeing drones controlled off cellular networks like Verizon and other networks that are already getting set up for this process. I think we’ll see that change within the next five years.
Russel: I think what we’ll see on some of the pipelines, particularly where operators consider them high risk, is they’ll have pre-positioned drones for doing emergency inspection.
Rodney: Yeah. there’s already a lot of technology that’s been developed in that space, too. Drone boxes is what they’re called where it’s an isolated container that has the drones inside, that charges the drones. You can deploy that drone from these drone boxes in remote areas and control them from wherever you have Internet connection.
Russel: Actually, that technology’s been around for a while. The challenge is the technical integration problem. That’s being quickly solved. Being able to get the drones to fly at a speed where they can cover more territory.
Rodney: You hit the nail on the head with that question on just having fixed-wing drones that are capable of vertical takeoff and landing. A fixed-wing drone requires a significant amount of less battery consumption. They’re able to fly further and a lot faster than their rotorcraft counterparts.
Russel: Listen, let’s wrap this up, Rodney, with this question, if we could. What do you think pipeliners ought to know about drones? I’ll say what I think is the key takeaway for me is that they’re very viable for doing routine patrols. I would assume that the price point for doing a drone patrol is probably more attractive than an aircraft patrol.
Rodney: That’s exactly right. Drones have less of an impact on the public, on property owners. They’re capable of doing a little more than your typical manned aircraft solutions, just because they’re actually capturing the data. You can leverage that data in the future.
Drones, in my opinion, are the best method to perform pipeline patrols, second to actually using a vehicle and somebody on the ground. It’s a little more cost-effective and efficient to use a drone as opposed to getting somebody out there to drive 200 miles to the right-of-way, or more.
Russel: Right. I guess the tradeoff would be if aircraft could get it done quicker, in general.
Russel: For an emergency call-out, aircraft might be more appropriate.
Rodney: I agree with that. One thing I’d like pipeline operators to keep an eye out for is if you are going to use a drone as a part of your visual patrol method or pull in a drone company to do that, make sure that that drone has high-resolution sensors and is flying at an altitude to clearly capture that imagery.
That’s what the PHMSA safety office has pushed us just to ensure that the sensors are high enough resolution to capture that data effectively.
Russel: That’s a good point. I think this is the other thing that pipeliners ought to know. You’ve got to have the right sensors capturing the right resolution. Just because I have a drone that flies a camera doesn’t mean I can do a patrol. The follow-on to that is you got to have the right back-office process to get that stuff bundled up and presented to you in a way that it’s actionable data.
Rodney: Correct. On a 150-mile system, we’re generating 100 gigabytes of data in a single day that needs to be processed. It’s just as much of a data management process as it is an actual inspection process.
Russel: I’ve actually done some podcasts on that subject in the past. That’s also really fascinating with what those guys can do. What I’m taking away from this is that, really, drones for patrols are probably way more viable than what I realized.
I knew that the technology was capable of it, but I think one of the things you’ve walked out for me that I didn’t realize is people that know what they’re doing can do it this way and do it in an effective and cost attractive way.
Rodney: It tends to increase the safety of the operation a bit as well.
Russel: Sure. Listen, Rodney, this has been great. I appreciate you coming on and helping me learn more about something I already have an interest in. This has been awesome.
Rodney: Thanks for having me. It’s been a lot of fun.
Russel: I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast and our conversation with Rodney. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win to enter yourself in the drawing.
Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d 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