This week’s Pipeliners Podcast episode features first-time guest David Yoel of American Aerospace discussing the process of digitizing aerial patrol for real-time reporting in the pipeline industry.
In this episode, you will learn about the latest technology around automated threat detection using various aircraft, how David’s company is supporting a key aerial patrol project with PRCI focusing on using unmanned aircraft for pipeline patrol, the latest developments receiving FAA approval for certain unmanned patrol activity, and other exciting new developments that will help pipeline operators in the future.
Pipeline Patrol: Show Notes, Links, and Insider Terms
- David Yoel is the CEO of American Aerospace Technologies, Inc. Connect with David on LinkedIn.
- American Aerospace provides an exceptional team of seasoned management, operations, market development, and technical professionals helping their clients accelerate growth through AI-enabled Airborne Sensing and other technology.
- PRCI (Pipeline Research Council International) is the preeminent global collaborative research development organization of, by, and for the energy pipeline industry.
- Listen to recent Pipeliners Podcast episodes with Cliff Johnson, president of PRCI.
- Chromosome Karyotyping is a test that evaluates the number and structure of chromosomes in order to detect abnormalities
- PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) is the federal agency within USDOT responsible for providing pipeline safety oversight through regulatory rulemaking, NTSB recommendations, and other important functions to protect people and the environment through the safe transportation of energy and other hazardous materials.
- Leak Detection includes external and internal methods of leak detection. External methods are based on observing external factors within the pipeline to see if any product is released outside the line. Internal methods are based on measuring parameters of the hydraulics of the pipeline such as flow rate, pressure, density, or temperature. The information is placed in a computational algorithm to determine whether there is a leak.
- API (American Petroleum Institute) has developed more than 700 standards to enhance industry operations. Today, it is the global leader in convening subject matter experts to establish, maintain, and distribute consensus standards for the oil and natural gas industry.
- API 1175 (Pipeline Leak Detection — Program Management) established a framework for Leak Detection Program (LDP) management for hazardous liquid pipelines that are jurisdictional to the U.S. DOT. This RP is specifically designed to provide pipeline operators with a description of industry practices in risk-based pipeline LDP management and to provide the framework to develop sound program management practices within a pipeline operator’s individual companies.
- Pipeline Right-Of-Way (ROW) is a property in which a pipeline company and a landowner both have a legal interest. Each party has a right to the land, although each has a different use for the land.
- FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) refers to the technology used to create an infrared image of a scene without having to “scan” the scene with a moving sensor, which is what was previously required. FLIR cameras use long waves to capture images.
- Multispectral Imagery is produced by sensors that measure reflected energy within several specific sections (also called bands) of the electromagnetic spectrum. Multispectral sensors usually have between 3 and 10 different band measurements in each pixel of the images they produce.
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the regulator of all the nation’s civil aviation activities, including management of air traffic in U.S. airspace. Their goal is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.
- Detect and Avoid (DAA) is an avionics system developed to help enable an unmanned flight through the National Airspace System (NAS).
- UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) or drones are aircraft without a human onboard. These must be registered with the FAA.
- Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Regulations (Part 107) dictate the rules of the sky when operating a drone and the requirements to do so.
- MiG is a Russian subsonic fighter aircraft made by the MiG company. These aircraft were targets of U.S. fighting forces during the Vietnam War.
- The C-130 Hercules (C-130) primarily performs the tactical portion of the airlift mission. The aircraft is capable of operating from rough, dirt strips, and is the prime transport for airdropping troops and equipment into hostile areas.
- Pneumatic Launch is a type of launch using compressed air to launch a vehicle.
- Kevlar Skids are strips of Kevlar felt that can be used to help create a soft landing for certain aircraft.
- Vertical Takeoff and Landing (VTOL) aircraft is one that can hover, take off, and land vertically without relying on a runway to launch.
Pipeline Patrol: Full Episode Transcript
Russel Treat: Welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast, episode 215, sponsored by EnerACT Energy Services, supporting pipeline operators to achieve natural compliance through plans, procedures, and tools implemented to automatically create and retain required records as the work is performed. Find out more about EnerACT at EnerACTEnergyServices.com.
Announcer: The Pipeliners Podcast, where professionals, Bubba geeks, and industry insiders share their knowledge and experience about technology, projects, and pipeline operations. Now your host, Russel Treat.
Russel: Thanks for listening to the Pipeliners Podcast. I appreciate you taking the time. To show the appreciation, we give away a customized YETI tumbler to one listener every episode. This week, our winner is Mason Minnix with Magellan Midstream. Congrats, Mason. Your YETI is on its way. To learn how you can win this prize, stick around to the end of the episode.
This week, David Yoel of American Aerospace is joining us to talk about digitizing aerial patrol for real-time reporting. This one is one I really enjoyed, and I hope you enjoy it as well. Dave, welcome to the Pipeliners Podcast.
David Yoel: Russel, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Russel: Before we get going, if you would, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and how you got into pipelining?
David: Sure. My name is Dave Yoel. I’m Founder and CEO of American Aerospace Technologies. I was first introduced to the pipeline arena in 2008 when I was doing some work with NASA on unmanned aircraft systems and was introduced to the Pipeline Research Council International and started providing technical support and development of sensor systems for pipeline patrol back in 2010.
Russel: Awesome. Tell us a little bit about your business, American Aerospace. What’s the background of American Aerospace? What are your roots, and where do you guys come from?
David: We started out in the space program in 2002. At the time, we were working with NASA and launch vehicle suppliers to NASA putting cameras on the rockets. You might remember the Columbia accident back in 2002. There was debris coming off the external tank. I was part of a team that put cameras on the space shuttle to track this debris coming off to increase the safety of future flights.
Through that experience, I got to work with NASA Ames Research Center. When they started working with the pipeline community in 2008, they asked me to get involved. That led to the work we started in 2010 with the Pipeline Research Council.
Russel: That’s fascinating. Many, many years ago, I worked in a company, and we were working with a group where their lead subject matter expert was a Ph.D. engineer. He was the guy who developed all the original image capture and image analysis for NASA back in the ’60s.
They were doing chromosome karyotyping with electron microscopes and image analysis. That’s when I first started learning about what image analysis actually was. It’s fascinating, fascinating stuff. I’m sure, if you were working with the Ames guys, you were seeing some pretty cool tech.
David: It was great tech. It’s been an amazing transformation in machine vision, artificial intelligence, cloud, communications, and sensors. That’s all been moving forward over the years.
We’ve arrived at a point today where you can bring all these tools together to not only detect threats from sensors on pipeline aerial patrol but to run them through algorithms and send the needles in a haystack, the images with threats in them, rapidly to damage prevention departments so that they can take action more quickly when a potential disaster is imminent.
Russel: Tell me a little bit about the stuff you did with PRCI. What was the nature of the project you were doing with those guys?
David: PRCI has had a long-standing interest in developing automated threat detection systems for aerial patrol. That really started off in 2008. They adopted a program in 2010.
We’ve been working on and off with PRCI and with PRCI members for all these years in not only developing this automated threat detection system and expanding the threat portfolio of threats that we can automatically detect and report, but PRCI has also been interested in unmanned aviation for all these years as well.
They’ve seen that, in the future, unmanned aircraft systems are going to be able to patrol pipeline corridors more efficiently, more effectively, in a much greener way. Think about a Cessna carrying a sensor package with one or two folks on board. It’s a 2000 pound aircraft carrying 50 pounds of sensors.
It’s burning 15, 20 gallons an hour, whereas an unmanned aircraft flying a similar patrol would be burning a gallon every three hours. We’re burning 45 times less fuel. There are no people in the air, on the aircraft, that are at risk.
Typically, pipeline patrol’s done at low altitudes at high speeds. Any kind of equipment failure or issue on the aircraft, there’s almost no time to recover when you’re patrolling at 500 feet. By transitioning to unmanned aircraft, we’re going to be more economical, we’re going to be greener, and we’re going to be safer.
Russel: I think pretty much anybody that understands drones and the technologies and their capabilities is already thinking, “Why aren’t we doing that already?” There are also some good answers to that, but I want to actually take you a little bit back and talk about automated threat detection. What is automated threat detection, and how are you doing it?
David: What we put together is a package of sensors in the visible, in the infrared, and we’ve combined them with devices so that, as we acquire this imagery in various bands of the spectrum, we can geolocate that imagery in real-time. In other words, we can position those images on a map in real-time. Then, we can scan them with machine learning algorithms that can automatically detect a number of different threats to pipeline integrity. The largest cause of damage, according to PHMSA statistics, is third-party machinery digging holes not realizing there are buried pipelines.
The first threat that we attacked for PRCI was the machinery threat, since that causes such a large percentage of the damage. We can now automatically detect and report fires. We’re working on leak, both liquid and gas, by several different techniques. Also, we’re flooding at creek and river crossings, active farming, and logging. There is evidence of third-party incursions.
There’s a range of threats that we’re addressing with this end-to-end tech stack that images the corridor, geolocates the images, runs them through algorithms to detect these threats, and then sends those to the customer in near real-time, literally within seconds of detection, from the aircraft to the damage prevention department at the company within, in many cases, a matter of seconds.
Russel: That last little bit is the part that twists my brain. It’s easy for me to visualize how, with the kinds of imagery we have available to us today, you could capture those images, process those images, and say, “Here’s incursions and activity in the right-of-way that you guys need to go look at.”
I can see where that’s really valuable, particularly if I can look at that more frequently than I might be able to do it with a classic aerial patrol.
David: There’s a couple of other things to keep in mind with it. First of all, we record all the imagery we acquired during the patrol, and we’re only sending the needles in a haystack in real-time. In other words, the 1 in 500 pictures that actually has a threat in it, because no one’s interested in sitting there looking at pictures all day.
David: They want the nuggets in hand in real-time, so that they have an opportunity to accelerate response and minimize damage, or eliminate the threat before it becomes a disaster.
After the flight, we take all the imagery, and we produce a map of the corridor from that patrol. Now, you can visualize, if you did this on every patrol, you now have a library providing a permanent record of conditions on your corridor every time you patrol.
You can go back, and you can look through all that imagery to find issues to improve your processing, so that next time, you find those issues more effectively. There’s a continuous improvement feature to this because of the repeat nature of the data recording.
It creates an archive, a library, a method of continuously improving patrol, because in current patrol, there’s no record of conditions, so you don’t know what you missed. This way, you have a process that enables you to continuously improve and further develop and refine your tools.
Russel: There’s a lot bound up in what you just said there, Dave. Let me ask this question, how frequently would you typically be flying one of these drone-style patrols?
David: PHMSA and federal mandates for liquid lines require patrol 25 times a year, no more than three weeks apart, weather permitting. Gas lines, the patrol requirements, once a month.
If you roll that up with the roughly 250,000 miles of liquid transmission lines and about the same in natural gas lines, this rolls up into something like a 10 million-mile-a-year patrol market. We’re talking about a lot of hours in the air with a lot of aircraft to accomplish the federal mandate.
Although, I find in talking with my customers, many of them are actually patrolling more frequently than the federal mandate, because everybody’s interested in maintaining the safety and integrity of their networks, and that’s the most important thing.
Russel: Absolutely. I’ve certainly seen a lot of operators that are patrolling weekly, and even more often when they think they need to. I think you’re absolutely right. What about the actual reporting of these threats? Are there industry standards around how you report these, or you haven’t developed your own standards for what and how to report?
One of the things that comes up for me when you talk about capturing all this imagery, and then processing it to say, “Here’s the things you need to go look at right now,” there’s always a risk in that about what are the things you’re missing.
David: Russel, it’s a great question. One of the key objectives of the PRCI program we’re on is to create industry standards for the definition of threats and how they’re reported. If we can create a common standard across the industry, then we have this ocean of data that we can use to refine and improve and develop these algorithms, and further increase performance.
Whereas if each operator has different types of labels for threats, different things that are threats, we’re going to end up with a much slower progression to the ultimate goal of very high detection rates, because it’ll take longer to train the algorithms to perform at the highest possible levels.
The other thing we’ve been working on and we’ve done for the very first time in the last six months is we’ve aligned the data products from aerial patrol with API Recommended Practice 1175 for leak detection systems, so that, for the first time, there’s an opportunity to have aerial patrol directly support leak detection programs under industry standard 1175.
Russel: That’s an interesting topic to me. I do a lot of work in leak detection. That would be in my wheelhouse. The idea of getting a leak alarm generated from imagery capture, and taking that back to the appropriate group to respond, that’s pretty compelling in my mind.
David: We hope so. We’re certainly finding that amongst our existing customers. As we have more conversations across the industry, it certainly seems like people understand the value of a digital upgrade to aerial patrol.
Russel: Your focus is more on the image processing and the distribution of threat data more so than the image capturing. Is that fair to say, or are you doing both sides of that equation?
David: What we concluded was to be able to do all of this in real-time, you really have to have an end-to-end solution. If you start trying to combine any camera with the software, the need for speed is not achieved. We currently have an end-to-end tech stack from the sensors all the way to the publishing and data delivery.
We think that over time, that might evolve, but for now, to get the speed that’s needed, we have the end-to-end tech stack. One of the aspects of our sensor package that’s important to understand is there are fantastic billion-dollar sensors out there that can do miraculous things, but this is aerial patrol of pipelines. [laughs]
We have to match the cost to the mission. To do that, we’ve compiled from commercial off-the-shelf sensors a sensor package that can assist us in detecting all these threats.
Russel: Again, you just said a mouthful, and I’ve done a number of podcasts on different aspects of imagery and capture. The kinds of images you’re capturing, and FLIR cameras, and multispectral, and all these different things that you can do with the image.
To me, it’s a really telling comment to focus on putting the package together and focus on speed, because if you can detect quickly, even 60 percent of the potential threats, that’s a huge value upgrade. Just a speed of detection of the more common threats.
David: Yes, indeed. What we found in blind tests that have been done, sponsored by PRCI, is that we’ve had higher detect rates through these digital systems than standard patrol has been able to achieve at least in the blind tests have been accomplished to date. We see the value of integrating machine learning with these sensor systems because it’s already showing a higher detect rate.
The other thing that’s interesting and beneficial, we think, to the pipeline operators is lower false positives in that, when an operator gets a report of a threat to a pipeline, they’re required to send a field engineer to put eyes on. If you’re able to reduce the number of field trips that are required to show that a detect was not correct, then you’re saving operating expenses at a pretty high level.
Russel: No doubt. I want to ask some other questions about this. Are you capturing all of your imagery via drones?
David: Our sensor package can operate on both standard patrol aircraft as well as on unmanned aircraft. The sensor package itself is agnostic to the type of platform it’s on. Along with having the sensor package in data delivery service, we’re also developing a long-endurance unmanned aircraft system for this mission.
We’re working with the FAA to commercially type certify this aircraft. Our goal is to achieve type certification in the first quarter of 2023, which will allow for commercial operations at scale with unmanned aircraft systems on pipeline patrol.
Russel: That leads me to some questions that might be a bit futuristic. I know enough about drones to be dangerous. I know that one of the big issues with drones for pipeline patrol is the ability to fly them beyond line of sight because the FAA requirements for flying drones is that the drone operator has to have line of sight to the drone they’re flying. Then that’s a huge limitation for what the possibilities are in pipelining.
Are you guys doing any work around “beyond line of sight” or remote operations or autonomous operation of these drones?
David: Yes, we sure are. Our drones have an 18-foot wingspan, weigh 220 pounds, and they’ll fly for up to 17 hours. They don’t operate at 400 feet and below. They operate at over 1,000 feet typically between 1,000 and 3,000 feet above the ground.
We’re flying with manned aircraft traffic in the National Airspace with our aircraft systems. The aircraft has a 1,000-mile range on eight gallons of fuel.
What we’ve been working on over the last six months that’s driving toward certification is we’re working through all the details on certifying this new class of aircraft with the FAA. We were very fortunate to have a NASA contract, where NASA assisted us in getting the certification process underway.
In the last six months, our principal focus has been on the detect and avoid piece, so we can detect and avoid other aircraft. We’re validating our DAA solution for the FAA. We have radar on the aircraft.
We’re looking forward about two and a half kilometers or about a mile and a half and looking for other aircraft so that we can avoid them automatically if we encounter another aircraft, and that testing has been going phenomenally well.
The aircraft flies on Satellite Command and Control links, and so it gives us an unlimited communications range as well. Those are the two big pieces we’ve been working on over the last six months, and we’ve been making great progress.
Russel: The other thing you said that’s interesting to me is you mentioned that you can fly a thousand miles on how many gallons of fuel?
Russel: Eight gallons of fuel. These drones are actually fuel-powered. They’re not battery-powered.
David: That’s correct, yes. We have an eight and a half total.
Russel: That’s how you’re getting the range and the hang time.
David: Exactly. We have an eight-and-a-half horse engine liquid fuel. We use aviation gas, but essentially, it’s a Honda rototiller engine that’s been re-ignitioned and re-carbureted, and completely re-engineered for this application. We’re over 1,500 hours on this engine design. It’s pretty well proven out at this point.
Russel: That’s also fascinating. That sounds to me like a fun garage project. [laughs]
David: It started out out that way.
Russel: That’s a rabbit hole I can fall way far down, I’ll put it that way.
David: [laughs] I sure did.
Russel: I’ll bet. It sounds like it. You’re working through the technology, and the thing I would say…I’ll ask you this question. You might not know this. Do you know in what war the U.S. first flew remotely piloted drones?
David: I do. It was World War I. [laughs]
Russel: That’s even before my knowledge. Tell me what they were doing in World War I.
David: We were sending airplanes out with bombs in them in World War I.
Russel: Were they being piloted remotely, or are they just being sent?
David: My recollection is that they were just being sent.
Russel: My question is what war were they first remotely piloting the drones?
David: Wasn’t that Vietnam?
Russel: It’s earlier.
David: Korea? Okay.
Russel: I was in the Air Force for a period of time in the early ’80s. One of the things I got to do is go to a base where they had these drones. These drones looked…I don’t know. They were fairly big. They were 15, 20 foot long. Some fairly good-sized drones, but no pilots. We got a briefing on them, and they had been flying these things since Korea.
Russel: They had seven MiG kills in Vietnam. This was probably 1980s timeframe, and they had only, within the last 24 months, brought this capability out of classification.
The way they were taking the drones down, these things were used for reconnaissance. They would use them to fly and get pictures and fly out, but the MiGs would chase them, and these little things could turn to 9.5 to 10 Gs. They had a couple of MiGs try to turn into them and break the wings off their airplanes in a couple of them.
The way they would recover them is they would fly them out over the ocean, and they drag a big net behind the C-130. They would fly the thing into the net, and then drag the net into the C-130. That’s how they recover them.
Russel: They actually flew some guys out of gas. Fascinating, right?
Russel: Anyways, Korea, first time. My point being that this technology has been around for a very long time, but what’s relatively new is its use commercially, and the idea of using it within the FAA governed airspace. That’s the new piece.
David: It’s absolutely the new piece. It’s been a long time coming. We’re all thrilled, the people in the drone community, if you will, with the Part 107 rules, and the ability to fly the small UAS below 400 feet.
But, the real revolution in unmanned aviation is still ahead of us. It’s flying in mixed traffic with other aircraft at higher altitudes. Whether it’s our class of aircraft that’s dedicated to critical infrastructure patrol, or, eventually, these unmanned air taxis — people are talking about package delivery. There’s going to be many, many applications of this kind of technology, especially as we get above the soup, as we get above 400 feet, and fly in the National Airspace.
Russel: One of the things I wanted to ask you is you mentioned that these aircraft that you’re working on are designed to fly at a thousand feet, which seems awfully high to me. Why would you not want to fly those aircraft lower?
David: There’s several reasons. One is the field of regard for pipeline patrol. It’s at least the 1,000 foot swath width that you need to be able to see as you’re patrolling along the corridor. If you’re down to 400 feet or below, you’re not going to be able to see off 1,000 feet, 500 feet on either side. Because you’re so low, you’re not going to be able to see past any trees, or any 3D terrain, that kind of thing. You need to be higher to have the field of regard for your sensors to be able to automatically detect all the threats that you’re interested in capturing.
Russel: That makes sense. This aircraft, is it a vertical take-off and land, or does it require a runway?
David: We are using essentially an air cannon to launch it into the air. It’s pneumatically launched, and then it belly lands on Kevlar skids. We operate from farms. We’ve launched from beaches, gravel roads, and airports.
Russel: It’s not a vertical take-off?
Russel: It’s a true fixed-wing aircraft?
David: It’s a true fixed-wing aircraft. One of the reasons is that it turns out, the vertical take-off and landing takes about 30 or 40 percent of the performance of the aircraft away. You think about that vertical takeoff and landing. It’s pounds and pounds of batteries, beams, motors, and propellers. All that weighs, and it creates drag.
An aircraft of our size, for example, that was VTOL, wouldn’t have a 50-pound payload capacity, it would have a 10 or 15-pound payload capacity, and the endurance would be half. From our perspective, that loss of performance just doesn’t pay.
Russel: It’s interesting because you’re being very specific as to what your targeted solution is. Your targeted solution is pipeline patrol.
Russel: For those reasons, you’re optimizing the image capture, you’re optimizing the airframe, you’re optimizing the process, for that specific purpose.
I want to ask you some hypotheticals. One of the things I always think about working around control rooms a lot of my life, and working around leak detection is when you get a leak alarm, there’s certain things you do through your systems, but at some point, you have to get eyes on to know if you’ve really got a leak.
Russel: To my mind, it makes a whole lot of this sense to pre-position drones with all the appropriate instrumentation, so that you could quickly fly a segment. Most of those segments are probably going to be 100 miles or less. A lot of them are going to be 20 miles or less, because it’s going to be a segment between a couple of valves.
You very quickly want to get eyes on that, so the idea of being able to preposition, but if I’m pre-positioning a drone, then I need to have it in a house that I can open remotely. It’s got to be able to recharge itself. It probably has to do vertical take-off and landing, and I’m probably flying it 50 to 100 feet.
That’s all theoretical. I’d like to hear your commentary on my wild idea that I dream about at night. “What if the world was my oyster, and I had unlimited time and money?”
David: Sure. A few points. When you think about having 500,000 miles of transmission pipelines in the continental U.S., think about the number of small drones you’d need to have to be able to reach 20 miles in either direction.
You take that 500,000, let’s say you divide it by 50 just for easy numbers, plus or minus 25 miles from some location, you’re going to need a thousand plus drones. It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of costs. Who’s going to maintain the equipment?
Russel: It’s probably a third-party service provider that does all that.
David: The cost is extremely high, and we know that pipelines are a competitive business. People work very hard to minimize their expense.
Our approach, Russel, has been to, say, you’re on routine patrol with this system. Let’s say, each aircraft’s covering 500 miles. First of all, when you see something that looks like it’s an incident, you can stay and provide continuous coverage until the event is addressed.
If you’re already established on routine patrol, then it may take you a while to get to a location, but if you’re on patrol, you can transition into an emergency operation very rapidly without adding to your capital expense, or to your labor expense.
Our approach has been to work to leverage this unmanned aircraft that’s capable of flying these hundreds of miles to keep the cost to a minimum, and the responsiveness as high as possible.
Russel: That makes perfect sense to me, Dave. I’m asking the question as a theoretical because I think it is another need, but you would have to engineer the solution to work.
One of the things, if you fly below 100 feet, again, this is theoretical, if I wanted to be remotely piloted, then I’d have to create a geofence. What I’d want to do is create a geofence that was over the right-of-way up to some elevation, maybe 100 feet, and then I’d have the ability to fly within that.
I could have a reasonable expectation that there’s not other aircraft in that area. Then, I’ve got to have some type of hybrid because I’m going to need hang time, but I’m going to need to be able to get someplace quickly, and I’m going to need pretty good range. That’s probably a hybrid fixed-wing/VTOL type aircraft.
Then, there’s going to be a trade-off. I will not be able to carry as much instrumentation. I’m probably going to carry it lower, but in this case, I’m probably looking. Rather than trying to take a broad look, I’m trying to go and look to have a specific one.
What’s interesting about that conversation to me, is that there’s a lot of opportunity with this kind of technology, but to your point, there’s a whole bunch of pieces and parts, and all those pieces and parts have to be put together and optimized as a system for a specific solution.
David: Russel, I couldn’t agree with you more. At the end of the day, I believe that there’s going to be a layered approach to minimizing the risks to pipelines. There’s going to be satellite fees. There’s going to be aerial patrol fees. There are going to be drone fees. There are going to be unattended sensors on the ground, as well. At the end of the day, there’s no one hammer for every nail.
Russel: Right, exactly. Yeah, you’re going to need a toolkit.
David: Yeah, exactly. We’re not pretending that we can do everything for everybody. We have some very specific things we can do extremely well, we think, and those are the things we’re focused on, but we understand that we’re just one of the tools in the toolkit.
Russel: I appreciate that, Dave. I really wanted to get you on and have this conversation because this is a domain that I find really fascinating. I’ve, a couple of times, taken a fairly deep dive into the technology and try to sit down and look at it. The thing that was always compelling to me is all the technology is there and all the technology is mature.
The integration of the technology and the optimization of that technology to make it commercially viable, that’s where we got a long ways to go. It goes through this issue is every problem you’re trying to solve, it needs a different tool.
David: Well, exactly. I can tell you that we’ve been working on this for a long, long time. Hopefully, it’s not that far into the future that we’re going to be able to actually take these tools into routine operations.
Russel: I don’t think we’re far away. Once they start coming into routine operations and the operators get familiar with them, then they’re going to start asking questions like, “Well, couldn’t you adjust?”
Russel: That’s a good thing. Tell me, Dave, to wrap this conversation, ultimately, what do you think the value proposition is for what it is you’re trying to do? One of the things I wonder is, are you actually going to be able to not only improve safety but drive down cost?
David: Yes. If you look at the cost of operation of an unmanned aircraft system and an automated threat detection sensor package, you find that most of the costs that we have today with the unmanned aircraft have to do with all the special rules that we have to operate under today because we’re not commercially certified yet.
As the certification process, as FAA finalizes their certification process and the first of us gets through the gauntlet and these aircraft systems go into routine operations, the costs are going to plummet. The perfect example of that is take a look at the difference in fuel costs. It’s about a factor of 45. Our fuel burn is 45 times slower than a conventional patrol aircraft.
All the other costs will scale the same. This opens the promise of the possibility of increasing patrol rates, because the cost of operation is so much lower.
Russel: If you’re doing more frequent patrols and you’re keeping the imagery, not only are you able to do the image analysis associated with the image you’re capturing, you can also do image analysis and compare it to the last time you looked.
Russel: There’s lots of value in that that’s different. It’s not about immediate threats. It’s more about long-term and slowly occurring threats, movements, and such.
David: Russel, we’ve also been finding that other parts of the pipeline operations companies can benefit from these permanent record of conditions, whether it’s land management or security or the emergency response teams or operations to maintenance. There’s a lot of recurring value to the permanent record of conditions on the corridors that you just don’t get today.
Russel: Yeah, no doubt the challenge is that people are going to get flooded in information in how do I deal with that reality.
David: That’s where the artificial intelligence or machine learning comes in because it’s finding you the needles in a haystack.
Russel: That’s also where the standards come in as well.
Russel: Right. Listen, Dave, this has been great. I really appreciate you coming on and spending the time. I’m going to be very interested to know when do I get an opportunity to play with your toys?
David: We’ll invite you out to a flight-op one of these days.
Russel: I would love that. I’m in. Sign me up.
David: Outstanding. I can’t thank you enough, Russel, for the opportunity. Great talking with you. We’ll see you on the flightline one of these days soon.
Russel: Absolutely. For all the listeners and pipeline operators out there, if you want to know more, go to the show notes. We’re going to link up some things in the show notes with some resources and stuff. Dave’s contact information will be in there. If you want to know more, go to the Pipeliners Podcast website. Do a little research and reach out to Dave.
I hope you enjoyed this week’s episode of the Pipeliners Podcast our conversation with David. Just a reminder before you go, you should register to win our customized Pipeliners Podcast YETI tumbler. Simply visit pipelinerspodcast.com/win and enter yourself in the drawing.
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Russel: If you have ideas, questions, or topics you’d be interested in, please let me know either on the Contact Us page at pipelinerspodcast.com or reach out to me on LinkedIn. Thanks for listening. I’ll talk to you next week.
Transcription by CastingWords