How Gas Pipelines Benefit From Track & Trace Technology

Online Editor

Stephanie Michaud introduces a unique approach to gas pipeline field asset collection using GIS and GNSS solutions

Natural gas utility companies install thousands of kilometres of pipeline each year and have found that keeping a digital database of their buried pipeline assets is crucial for renewal, maintenance and emergency needs. The data collection of pipeline assets requires speed, accuracy and the capability of field technicians to capture pipeline information that, in many cases, exists within sites that have challenging conditions. The process of gathering this site information and the creation of a digital asset database assists natural gas utility operators with their utility processes and pipeline asset management.

This information can easily be shared with other utilities and public agencies if necessary, to locate pipes accurately and quickly in the field.

With close to 35 years of expertise working with natural gas utility companies, one of the most progressive US engineering and geographic information system (GIS) firms, Suburban Consulting Engineers (SCE), has successfully developed and implemented a new field data collection approach called “Enhanced GIS Data Collection.” This approach uses highly sophisticated equipment to customise a GIS-centric database for clients, which promotes the safety and compliance of pipeline operations.

With the complete ‘Mega Rule’ (49 CFR Part 192) from the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) on the horizon for adoption, natural gas utility operators are now being required to enhance their daily operations to include tracking and traceability of all installed pipeline assets, with a strong recommendation to capture GNSS coordinates.

Improved Data Collection

The SCE Enhanced GIS Data Collection process uses both Esri GIS and Trimble GNSS technologies to support the detailed asset data collection. Understanding the value of record maintenance and the growing regulatory requirements, many operators have found this process seamless and valuable to validate the high-volume of information collected on installed pipelines, both above and below the ground.

Once a pipeline route has been identified and all required permits and approvals are received by the operator, pipe materials are delivered to the site and construction begins. Typical construction sites incorporate a variety of contractors, field engineers and technicians, inspectors and company employees who play various roles and responsibilities including fabricating, reporting, and capturing imperative data. SCE’s Enhanced GIS Data Collection process starts with SCE’s field technicians mobilising to the site to collect specific information on pipeline assets such as size, type, angle and manufacturing specifications (MTRs) along with the details of the contracted professionals who are performing site services. Furthermore, during the construction of the pipe, SCE field technicians record all attributions on all pipeline components, including the pipe segments, connections, asset type, operating and allowable pressure, etc. In many cases, this data must be recorded that same day before a pipeline is buried underground, making the vital information unrecoverable.

Subcentimetre Accuracy

The field technicians are equipped on-site with advanced technologies and equipment to perform the asset data collection. To collect this detailed information quickly and accurately, SCE uses Trimble R2 GNSS receivers with Trimble TDC600 handheld data collectors that record GNSS locations, material attributes and associated geotagged images of pipelines. The unique part of the Enhanced GIS Data Collection process is the ability to collect data down to subcentimetre-level accuracy, which is achieved by using a local Trimble VRS network. All details are captured and uploaded into a client-specific GIS digital database that is available to review near real-time.

Due to the significant amount of detailed information collected, SCE has software and programs in place that can store and manage large capacity data. This data is maintained in large SDE databases housed in a SQL server on internal Esri Enterprise servers, where collected information and site photos are properly organised and filed. The SCE field technicians use Esri Field apps bundled on the Android-based TDC600 handheld, such as Survey 123 and Field Maps. The data is synchronised from the field to the office through a secure VPN connection initiating automated QA/QC and validation scripts.

SCE uses the Esri GIS suite to provide a consistent geospatial framework that houses the detailed pipeline information. Additionally, SCE collaborates with each client to create and enhance custom data models within their GIS environment that meet their specific goals and requirements. The resulting data is fully traceable, verifiable and provides a complete record for the life of the assets in accordance with the PHMSA regulations.

From on-site data collection to uploading final information into client-specific GIS digital databases, SCE has considerably reduced the turnaround time for producing deliverables. Clients can view and query a full digital copy of their pipeline infrastructure immediately – and for larger projects, weekly data deliverables are produced for quality checks and reporting. Operators also gain the benefit of reducing employee hours on projects as well as no longer needing as many of their own GIS technicians to model or translate data. Prior to utilising the Enhanced GIS Data Collection process, deliverables for new pipeline installation projects were limited and site information was not collected with the same degree of completeness or precision.

Real-World Success Story

GIS Supervisor Jacob McGlincy at Southern Company Gas recognises the benefits of the Enhanced GIS process, which matches the advanced technologies and GIS software being used. As he was wrapping up final inspections and commissioning activities at the end of a new pipeline project recently, McGlincy was asked to find all pipe segments installed on a transmission pipeline project that were manufactured on a specific day, had a specific type of coating and had a field bend. “It took just five minutes to query our data and identify seven pipe segments from more than 1,100 that had been installed – together with their exact locations in the field,” McGlincy says. The seven segments were verified, and the pipeline was successfully commissioned on time. “Without the real-time access to the detailed data, this research could have taken days or weeks with many unsuccessful exploratory digs to find and verify these segments,” he comments.

More to Come

According to SCE’s Natural Gas GIS department manager, Marc Sheridan, “This is only the beginning: there is more to come. We started the Enhanced GIS Data Collection process over seven years ago and we are still refining. There are always new technologies to incorporate to improve efficiency. Inspection reports are going digital and we are working on closeout packages to provide complete pipeline documentation. What started as a simple pipeline feature collection has now grown into a complex network, offering endless solutions to clients.”

Stephanie Michaud is with Trimble