SAN ANTONIO – Thousands of miles of oil and refined petroleum product pipelines crisscross the country, containing the fuels that power the nation but that can also pollute it if spilled.
The Southwest Research Institute, though, has worked out a new way to detect pipeline leaks and protect the environment. The task can be tricky, as not every puddle near a pipeline is necessarily a leak
"So for example, if you have gasoline on the floor - on grass - and you throw water on grass, can you tell the difference?” asked SwRI Intelligent Systems Division Research & Development Manager Maria Araujo, “Mostly likely not, it's just wet."
However, SwRI says technology it developed can – and with very few false alarms.
The "Smart Leak Detection" system (SLED) uses cameras to see the spills, and a machine-learning algorithm does the rest of the work.
"The algorithm is able to very accurately determine key characteristics of, you know, water, crude oil and other liquids of interest that we're searching for,” explained SwRI research engineer Daniel Davila
The big draw of SwRI’s system is that it is automated, and the system is able to learn to identify different spilled oil products in various conditions. A puddle of gasoline will look different in sun versus shadow or on rock versus grass.
The system is meant for smaller leaks which current pipeline-monitoring technology might not pick up. Of course, “smaller” is relative.
"So you think of a pipeline like the Keystone pipeline,” Araujo said. “If it's carrying about 800,000 barrels a day, 1 percent is 8,000. That's a lot. It's a big leak still. But it goes undetected, anything below that.
The SwRI team thinks SLED could be used to find those smaller leaks before they become bigger problems.
Davila explained how the system could be used to inspect the numerous miles of pipeline from the air.
"We would place our two cameras up underneath the drone, and this drone might fly over the length of a pipeline to inspect it for leaks,” Davila said.
SWRI is developing a similar system for the Department of Energy to pick out methane gas leaks. Araujo said that the system could be used at pump stations and tank farms, where she says many of the leaks happen.