By Ardis Marrs Steele
When it comes to leak detection, Heath Consultants is a company that knows what it’s doing. One reason this company has been in business for the past 85 years is they are constantly on the lookout for new and innovative technology to bring to their clients. Paul Wehnert, senior vice president of sales and marketing, says, “Each technology has to be at least as good as the one that came before.” So you can bet that when Heath began to use UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or “drones”, they had been thoroughly tested and the numbers had been run.
About four years ago, Heath Consultants and Physical Sciences, Inc. were awarded a Department of Energy grant meant to develop innovative technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The object was to find new uses for existing technology so the companies set to work to create a new way of inspecting pipeline rights-of-way for leaks and damage.
Combining Heath Consultants’ portable leak detection hardware with Physical Sciences, Inc.’s Instant Eye technology and mounting them on a declassified military drone proved to be a winning combination. “We were able to miniaturize the technology and put it on a drone to do inspections via the air along R-O-Ws, primarily with natural gas.”
But leaks are not the only thing these drones are handy for. According to Paul, “They can detect leaks on the line, but at the same time, with the cameras, you can monitor construction or encroachments by landowners or construction companies.” This feature saves manpower that would otherwise be required to walk the entire length of a pipeline.
Previously, technicians equipped with gas detection devices on their persons would have walked the line or ventured out in ATVs and trucks with detection devices mounted on them. The issue would inevitably arise that a section of line was in an area inaccessible by foot or vehicle. Drones solve that problem. They can be programmed with the GIS coordinates of a pipeline and will not deviate from their program. Flying under the tree canopy and high tension electric lines while also avoiding creek or river crossings means greater areas can be inspected in less time.
Easier maneuverability is certainly a big selling point, but there are other advantages being realized by Heath. “It’s more than just leak detection,” Paul says. “Somebody might be building a hunting stand or a flower garden on the right-of-way.” Because of the wider inspection swath, continual video capabilities of the drone’s cameras and the ability to get much closer to the R-O-W, landowners can be notified more easily that their project is not permitted. Checks can also be done to find exposed pipes after a flood and can be used for vegetation management— discovering whether it’s been cut back along the R-O-W and if it’s been done properly.
And Paul says this technology is being used in more industries than just oil and gas. Electric companies are beginning to use UAVs to inspect high tension lines and wind turbines. Paul said that in the past, fixed wing aircraft and helicopters were used, which is very expensive and dangerous, especially when it involves technicians hanging from a helicopter. “There are just so many things that make drones cheaper and safer.”
Safety, as always, is a key factor when adopting new technology and something that is always on the minds of drone operators is the safety and legality of piloting them in various areas. Paul said that a lot of what they do is rural, but when they enter more urban areas, they have to be aware of the different regulations they may encounter. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and state regulations are changing quickly, but not quite as quickly as UAV technology is advancing. For the most part, however, Paul feels that rule makers keep the interests of pipeline and utility companies (which affect all stakeholders) in mind. There are various drone associations that Heath belongs to, including one specific to the energy sector, so they can stay informed of any new regulations or legislation as it is being considered.
Later this year, Heath is looking to expand their line locating services to offer a contract service using drone technology to inspect pipes. But they’re also developing UAVs to sell to contractors. “If there’s a service provider that wants to do leak detection, they could buy one from us and get into that business. A transmission company that wants to do their own inspections could buy one from us or hire us to do it as contractor.” Paul said another option is to purchase just the detection equipment and software and add it to their own drone.
As exciting as these developments are, Heath isn’t done. Paul Wehnert expects Heath Consultants to continue to lead in the development and adaptation of new technologies to make all aspects of the energy industry safer and more efficient for years to come.