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Optical fingerprint reveals a digger

A new monitoring system by Siemens Energy makes it possible to use fiber optic cables running alongside underground oil and gas pipelines as sensors in order to prevent potential disasters. A pilot test in Austria demonstrated that  SIPIPE MON FOS detects and warns in due time of unannounced excavation work and other disturbances.


By Hubertus Breuer

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A digger on a field in Austria, somewhere between the towns of Kirchberg and Lichtenau. It’s a quite common sight. But invisible to bystanders, there is a gas pipeline just a few meters below – right where the digger’s shovel reaches into the earth. A fiber optic cable running next to the pipeline registers the vibrations – and a monitoring system developed by Siemens Energy, SIPIPE MON FOS, triggers an alarm. It’s sent to an employee of Gas Connect Austria, a gas transmission system operator – and if it weren’t a mere test run, they would take action immediately.

Minimize the risk ofdisasters

The global pipeline network measures over 3 million kilometers. Most pipelines run underground, and fiber optic cables are usually installed alongside them for communication and automation purposes. For many pipeline operators, the new alarm system, which is easy to install and low-cost compared to current security concepts, is a solution that not only limits damage, but could even prevent a possible disaster. In 2004, for example, 24 people died in Ghislenghien, Belgium, when a gas pipeline was damaged during construction work. And in 2014, an explosion in Ludwigshafen, Germany, killed two workers when they accidentally set steel walls on a gas pipeline.

"Accidents like these are unlikely, but they do happen," says Helmut Schnabl, who heads the digital process solutions in the Oil & Gas business at Siemens Energy Austria. "And the risk increases as worldwide roads, railroads and industrial parks are moving ever closer to pipelines."

Intelligent glass fiber technology

The fiber optic cable was not damaged by the excavator. However, its glass fibers were briefly stretched – and that impacted light pulses travelling through them. Since they are partially reflected on their route, vibrations change the travel time from the point of a disturbance back to the original light source, as well as their brightness.

This change can be measured by a fiber sensing unit. These units are placed every 80 kilometers along the pipeline. They analyze the collected data, thereby determining the location and cause of the incident. "The result is a clearly identifiable optical fingerprint," says Schnabl. Consequently, the system reports correctly that a digger is about to damage a pipeline between Kirchberg and Lichtenau at kilometer 39,56.

Continuously learningalgorithms

In order to distinguish harmless vibrations from critical threats, SIPIPE MON FOS uses artificial intelligence – machine learning algorithms, to be precise, which it applies to collected data. Like a human being, this allows it to generate decision-making rules which it then applies to new situations.

For most common and benign causes of vibrations, such as wind turbines, irrigation systems, tractors or trains, the monitoring system is already prepared when it is commissioned. This leaves incidents such as excavation work, seismic anomalies, leaks and other stresses, for which SIPIPE MON FOS is constantly collecting data and thus learning to identify unusual disturbances more precisely. If a potentially dangerous incident has occurred, the operating staff is alerted right away – in most cases before the damage even occurs. Then they can send out a drone or helicopter to check the affected pipeline section.

Product ready for globaldistribution

Erich Lugbauer, CTO of Gas Connect Austria, is pleased with the testing of SIPIPE MON FOS: "We have an extremely safe and secure network of pipelines as it is," says Lugbauer. "Still, we are constantly trying to improve on top of that – and this project has shown significant positive results ". So it’s no surprise that now SIPIPE MON FOS is going into global distribution.

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June 19, 2020

Hubertus Breuer is an independent journalist specializing on technology reporting. He lives and works in Munich, Germany.


Combined picture credits: Digital Motion Picture Datenverarbeitungs GmbH, Siemens Energy