Aerial Pipeline Inspection

The natural gas transmission system in the US is comprised of roughly 250,000 miles of pipeline. As new pipeline construction becomes more difficult there is growing emphasis on inspecting and maintaining existing infrastructure to increase its reliability and safety.

Aircraft are routinely employed to survey natural gas transmission pipelines for leaks or damage. Airborne sensors detect methane or hydrocarbon plumes around a pipeline indicating a leak. GPS and on-board mapping software record the plume’s location and intensity for reporting and repair.

There are generally two types of sensors; those that sample the air as the aircraft moves through a plume, and those that sense a plume at a standoff distance using IR or laser spectrometry. The sampling sensors measure gasses in the air directly and are reliable but require the operator to fly through a plume to detect it. The standoff sensors detect a plume from a distance, but can be affected by background noise or environmental conditions.

Both types of sensors benefit from low altitudes and speeds. Airplanes only carry standoff sensors, as their flight altitudes are not ideal for sampling sensors. Helicopters can carry either type of sensor – to as low as 25-50 feet in places, but are more expensive to operate then airplanes.

The Aero-X would provide a cost-effective alternative to these aircraft for pipeline inspection in remote areas. It is well suited to host both sensors together as a suite to benefit from the advantages of each.

In flight at moderate forward speed the Aero-X maintains a nose-down attitude that directs the downdraft rearward for lift and propulsion. Detectors mounted at the nose are clear of the downdraft and able to sample and look into an undisturbed plume.

When a leak is detected, the vehicle’s small footprint and vertical landing capability enables the pilot to land and assess the damage, assuring the right tools can be brought in for repair.