Drone use evolves on TAPS
Constant inspection and surveillance of the Trans Alaska Pipeline System infrastructure is necessary for flawless, safe operations. But investigating remote stretches and hard-to-reach areas of the 800-mile pipeline and its supporting facilities, sometimes in difficult conditions, can take countless labor hours, and incur high costs and even higher safety risks.
In recent years, a group of visionary thinkers with leading-edge ideas at Alyeska, among TAPS contractors and beyond introduced an emerging technology that made the work safer, more efficient and more accurate: unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) or drones. This modern revamp of age-old TAPS tasks earned the group this year’s Atigun Award for Innovation. A group of 45 people from three organizations shares the honor.
“This wasn’t an award that recognizes just a few people or one organization,” said Vernen Lee, Merrick Project Manager and Alyeska Survey Contractor. “If you look at the recipients, this was a TAPS-wide effort.”
Alyeska and TAPS contractors use drones to monitor remote streams and creeks, get closer looks at difficult and dangerous-to-access infrastructure and landscapes, and capture data at new levels of accuracy. What used to be cumbersome work, usually produced in helicopters by numerous surveillance crew members, is now done with relatively small and lightweight drones with a few operators standing safely on the ground.
In 2017, TAPS workers utilized a drone to diagnose a troublesome and mysterious problem around a fiery, 106 foot-tall PS1 flare tip. Instead of flying a crew in a helicopter around the flare or even shutting down the flare for closer inspection, teams used a high-quality camera mounted on a drone to get a clear and safe view that provided the perspective and data to make a replacement decision.
Drone surveillance and 3D mapping now provide the accurate measurements that have eliminated the risk of workers climbing onto riprap and gravel to obtain inventory data. Drone footage also provided the first as-built 3D drawing and terrain map of Gunnysack Creek in November 2017. The HD topographic mapping allowed engineers to analyze and implement a plan to further protect buried pipeline.
“Safety is the most important benefit,” said Jacques Cloutier, Alyeska Civil Survey Support Engineer and a drone implementation team lead. “Less exposure to the elements can reduce potential for injury on difficult walking surfaces and dangerous heights, and even limit the amount of time workers have to spend outside in cold temperatures.”
Lee added that drones help workers spend less time climbing ladders and scaffolding, and using cranes. Increased drone use also reduces helicopter flights, which drops operating costs and minimizes related safety risks.
The concept of drone use on TAPS started in 2015 as a group of employee hobbyists were developing their piloting and video skills. They formed an informal committee to examine potential benefits and worked through federal regulations about UAS use by following models used around Alaska by other companies, including BP on the North Slope.
Successes of drone use and their imaging systems were instant and groundbreaking: they provided new perspectives of the visible spectrum, allowing Alyeska to detect and address issues sooner than in the past.
“The possibility of more accurate data collection will ultimately lead to more informed and better decision making along TAPS,” added Cloutier.
That accuracy in surveying and site mapping, as well as successes like the flare tip diagnosis, have sparked requests from Alyeska departments on how drones can reduce risk and increase efficiency on a variety of other projects.
Cloutier said Alyeska is just scratching the surface of the potential work that drones can provide on TAPS. He has already used them to inspect bridge crossings for potential ground movement at the South Bank of the Yukon River during May 2018. Cloutier is confident they can provide near real-time ROW and infrastructure surveillance that can keep an eye on valves, pipes and leak detection, as well as support security.
“Alyeska gave us the opportunity to perform and evaluate the data over time,” said Lee.
Currently, drones must be flown within sight of the operators. But, UAS federal regulation may be changing in the near future that would make allowances for organizations, including TAPS. Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems and Beyond Visual Line of Sight remotely piloted aerial system operations will expand the range of safer, more effective observation. And a new partnership with UAF could further increase the use of drones along TAPS and other industries.
Merrick’s drones already have a full schedule of work lined up this summer, including one notable project: working with Alyeska’s technical spill contingency teams during yearly containment drills. During a live drill, a drone will capture video of response effort teams so that footage can be used for post-drill review and areas for improvement.
Lee echoed Cloutier’s confidence for drone use.
“People realize that this will be a game-changer in how Alyeska performs future work in the field,” Lee said. “After testing the concept on the flare tip and mapping several parts of TAPS, it is clear how reliable and trustworthy the technology is.”
The individuals being recognized with this Atigun Award are: Alyeska’s Alex Lai, Casey Ahkvaluk, Brittany Barnes, Daryl Beeter, Tom Betz, Nate Carson, Jacques Cloutier, Monte Geerdes, Verne Griffis, Mike Hale, Lorena Hegdal, Keith Hoffman, Phil Huelskoetter, Scott Iverslie, Lorraine Maroney, Janna Miller, Scout Monegan, Joseph Nash, Shaune O’Neil, David Ratky, Bob Stirling, Jeffrey Streit, Renier Swart, Rick Weinrick and Vol Williams; Merrick’s Doug Baum, Amber Castano, Travis Cronin, Joe Donohue, Andrew Garett, Allen Holt, William Hudson, Greg Johnson, Tim Koerber, Ben Kramer, Vernen Lee, Patrick Long, Diane Morelli, Shain Osgood, Geoffrey Preston, David Tassie, Sam Toms, Chris Velez and Scott Wood; and CASI’s Kent Freem