Deploying UAV Systems from Microdrones for more efficient pipeline inspections in China
To date, Microdrones Systems have flown over 40,000 km of pipeline, saving Sinopec time and money while also reducing the risk of injury to their workers. Watch the video below or continue reading to learn about the process.
The Chinese translation is available for download at the end of this article.
Team members at Sinopec, a company that manages 6,000 km of oil pipelines in southern China, got their first glimpse into what drones can do back in 2014. They noticed UAS successfully flying inspection missions for a variety of industries, even for some of their peers in China. The promise of the new technology piqued their interest, as they must inspect portions of their pipeline every day—often in mountainous regions that are difficult to reach and pose dangers to their inspectors.
“We hoped to use drones to make pipeline inspections more efficient while reducing inspection costs and decreasing the difficulties and risks faced by inspectors,” Project Manager Li Wei said. “At the same time, we hoped that drones could provide us with more information that we could use for pipeline management. Obviously, this was a very complicated systems engineering project, not a simple matter of just buying a few drones to take aerial images.”
In 2015 they started inviting drone companies to field test systems over their pipelines, including Microdrones. It took two years, but the team finally launched large-scale drone-based pipeline inspection operations with the md4-1000 from Microdrones in late 2017. To date, these systems have flown over 40,000 km of pipelines, saving the company time and money while also reducing the risk of injury to its workers.
Before experimenting with the md4-1000, Sinopec was familiar with Microdrones and well aware of its reputation for reliability. Still, Sinopec wanted to be sure the solution would meet its operational needs and that the company would be both responsive and supportive. Knowing this was a long-term, complicated project, it was crucial to partner with a supplier who would do more than just sell them equipment.
To ensure Microdrones was indeed the right partner, Sinopec deployed the md4-1000 to conduct intermittent pipeline inspections over several months in Guangxi, Guizhou, Yunnan, and other mountainous regions, Wei said, collecting 1,000 km of test flight data.
“This drone was truly able to work continuously for an extended period of time,” Wei said. “The proactive and enthusiastic support Microdrones provided made a deep impression on us. During field testing, the Microdrones tech support staff was always on site to help our inspectors. They understood the nature of the work we wanted the drones to accomplish, helped us come up with and test rational flight methods, and provided drone operation training for our inspectors.”
Li Wei, project manager, Sinopec
The proactive and enthusiastic support Microdrones provided made a deep impression on us. During field testing, the Microdrones tech support staff was always on site to help our inspectors. They understood the nature of the work we wanted the drones to accomplish, helped us come up with and test rational flight methods, and provided drone operation training for our inspectors.
How They’re Using the md4-1000
Since launching the program, Sinopec has purchased eight md4-1000 systems and has plans to purchase more, Wei said. The drones are allocated to different management units, with more than 60 front-line personnel from those units trained to use them. “Their job is to deploy the UAS to check on various pipeline facilities to ensure they are in good condition and to detect events and activities along the pipeline route that could damage underground pipelines, such as construction work, mining activities, landslides, floods, or other natural disasters,” Wei said. “We design the flight paths and takeoff and landing points for all drone missions based on pipeline coordinates and elevation data.”
The drones must travel through mountains, high-voltage electrical towers, trees and other difficult terrain, so the team conducts field inspections of the takeoff and landing sites along planned routes, making adjustments to the mission if any potential safety hazards are found. The drones fly along the pipelines in a series of stages, with 8 to 10 flights completed every day to inspect 80 to 100 km of pipeline. Personnel address any problems found during the inspections.
All 6,000 km of the pipeline must be inspected at least once a month. The drones carry HD cameras and record video during the entire flight. Once a mission is complete, the video collected is analyzed via image recognition software to identify potential safety hazards.
“Compared to the images captured by staff on the ground, aerial imaging provides a wider perspective, allowing us to easily determine the spatial relationships between targets and the pipeline and to discover issues that are difficult to observe from the ground,” Wei said. Frequently flying drones over the pipelines also serves as a deterrent to people engaging in activities that may be harmful to the pipeline, Wei said. They’re more cautious when they know they’re being recorded.
How Inspections Were Completed in the Past
Before drones, Sinopec relied on manual inspections to collect the information it needed. Because most of the pipelines are located in mountainous regions, inspectors would have to leave their cars to walk them, which isboth tedious and dangerous. They’re typically only able to gather data for 5 to 7 km of pipeline at a time, meaning inspections had to be repeated every day. Workers also had to be extremely careful and keep an eye out for poisonous snakes and insects as they walked through the dense forests and rugged mountain roads.
With the drone, four people can cover 60 to 100 km of pipeline a day, depending on the weather and terrain, Wei said. After factoring in the working time required for equipment maintenance, flight preparation, and data analysis, they inspect an average of 800 km of pipeline per month—an inspection efficiency eight times higher than traditional manual inspection.
“This improved inspection efficiency enables us to discover and dispose of potential risks that may cause damage to pipelines in a more timely manner and improves the quality of pipeline safety management,” Wei said. “In the long run, it will also reduce the cost of pipeline maintenance.”
The main reason Sinopec decided to go with the md4-1000 is the system’s reliability, Wei said. The team needed a UAS that could perform heavy workloads and maintain a low flight altitude of 50 to 100 meters. It also realized these conditions would require the system to be flown on autopilot most of the time, as its communication link would be obstructed and operators would not be able to control it.
“This flight mode demands an extremely high degree of reliability from the drones. When making frequent flights in complex environments, it is difficult to prevent accidents,” Wei said. “Extensive testing has proved the md4-1000 is still the most reliable drone on the market.”
The system’s functional scalability is another advantage, Wei said. Based on their project plan, Sinopec needed a solution that could perform night patrols, execute emergency commands, respond to geological disasters and perform other tasks along with shooting videos and photos.
“Besides carrying cameras, the md4- 1000 can provide solutions for aerial lighting systems, aerial communication systems, oblique photography systems, LiDAR systems and even tethered power systems,” he said. “This functional scalability provides a technical foundation on which we can continuously develop more drone applications. We will not have to reinvest in other drone platforms to achieve subsequent further technical solutions and applications.”
And then, of course, there’s the customer service, Wei said. Microdrones has a deep understanding of what customers need, and is willing to work with them to make improvements. The level of support puts the Sinopec team at ease; a quick response is forthcoming any time there’s an issue or a question.
The team at Sinopec has found a few other ways to use the md4-1000 besides pipeline inspection, including:
Using its onboard illumination to patrol at night to see if anyone has stolen oil.
Mounting the speaker system during an emergency to conduct and direct people on the ground
Mounting the tether power unit during pipeline repair, staying in the air for a long time to shoot the construction condition and then transmitting the scene image back to the command center
The biggest challenge Sinopec facedwhen developing the drone program was ensuring safety, Wei said. While the company knew it would be impossible to completely avoid drone accidents, it had to find a way to limit them to prevent injury to personnel and damage to the pipelines.
This challenge was approached from multiple angles, including investing in the reliable Microdrones system. Beyond that, the team developed strong training and work management for thecompany’s drone operators, and decided early on to make it a priority to provide prompt feedback to suppliers about any problems. It also abide by government laws when operating the systems and added insurance as an extra layer of protection.
While focusing on safe operations was critical to developing the drone program, it wasn’t the only challenge Sinopec faced. Wei and his team also needed to find a way to combine drone technology with the existing pipeline operations and maintenance management system, which was gradually created based on traditional work methods.
“The system is well-established and effective,” he said. “Using drones for pipeline inspection will inevitably lead to a number of completely new challenges, including issues of equipmentmaintenance, personnel management, data processing and information sharing. We believe drone pipeline inspection is a big technology trend. However, if it cannot be integrated into existing pipeline operations and maintenance management systems, it will become an isolated system, limiting its impact and potential popularity.”
While the company has made progress in this area, it’s always thinking about and exploring new possibilities.
For now, Sinopec is mainly focused on establishing a task model and management system for large-scale drone pipeline inspection, with the ultimate goal of replacing manual inspection entirely with drones. It plans to train all 120 of its ground inspectors on the md4-1000 this year and to invest in more units. It’s also working to develop a system that automatically analyzes and manages massive amount of data collected via drone. The system will leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and image recognition technology to reduce manual data analysis, further improving efficiencies.
Sinopec also would like to add more drone applications in the future, Wei said. This might include using Microdrones systems for aerial mapping. In this application, the geographic information data for the pipelines would be represented with 3-D modeling, and the
online monitoring sensor data along the pipelines combined with 3-D models to form a 3-D visual pipeline information management system.
The team is also interested in using LiDAR and direct georeferencing (DG) solutions to map crucial pipeline facilities and areas with high rates of natural disasters. These solutions would provide more accurate information to develop pipeline safety contingency plans and on-site response procedures during accidents.
As the company continues to expand its comprehensive drone program and learn what works and what doesn’t, it’s happy to share their experiences with others in the industry so everyone can benefit from drone technology.
“As far as we know, many of the world’s petroleum and petrochemical enterprises are trying to use drones to inspect pipelines and facilities. However, there are still very few enterprises using drones as a productivity tool for large-scale, normalized inspection like our company,” Wei said. “If given the chance, we would be happy to engage in technical exchange and cooperation with our international industry peers, share our experiences with each other and jointly promote the petroleum and petrochemical industry ‘Drone Revolution.’”
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