Digital Underground: Geospatial Takes Pipeline Assets to the Cloud

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If you’re going to own and operate a pipeline, you should know where it is. The better you manage the location and condition of your assets, the better you can ensure safety and integrity for your customers and the public at large. That’s where Geospatial Corp. comes in.

Geospatial offers a variety of methods for mapping and collecting data about pipelines or other infrastructure. Using this “technology stack,” the company and its technology partners can provide accurate XYZ coordinates — latitude, longitude and depth — to provide a 3D picture of where exactly a buried asset sits underground. This geographic information system (GIS) data can then be downloaded to any digital device used by the company and its contractors in myriad applications, such as condition assessments or route planning for new installations.

Geospatial’s technology stack combines visual, GPS, LIDAR, infrared and microwave technologies to locate underground pipelines and to detect voids and leaks in underground oil and gas pipelines, as well as water and other pipelines. Sensors can be deployed on a walking device, on a van or on another ground-based vehicle, such as an ATV. In conjunction with Geospatial’s partners’ technologies, sensors can be deployed by helicopter, fixed-wing aircraft or an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or drone. Surface mapping technology includes electromagnetic (EM) tools for locating metallic lines, ground penetrating radar (GPR), inertial navigation systems (INS) and acoustic sensing. The company also uses in-line tools, such as its Smart Probe for mapping and geometry assessment.

geo-undergroundThe Pittsburgh-based company is a small operation that CEO Mark Smith started 10 years ago, after helping to build up Underground Solutions Inc.

“I felt there was a need to more accurately locate pipelines and see if it could be done in three dimensions,” Smith says. “After a few years of research, I started Geospatial in 2007.”

The company has a little more than 10 employees, with an extensive partner network of companies that use Geospatial’s technology. The company is headquartered in Pittsburgh, but has regional offices in Houston and Washington, D.C., and operates throughout the United States.

Geospatial has been involved with assessing oil and gas pipelines since its inception, but senior management has more than 30 years of experience in the industry. In August 2016, the company announced the addition of Todd Porter and the creation of its Energy Service Division, located in Houston. Porter is president of the newly created division.

“We see cars with crazy devices all over our streets grabbing accurate data so people can have the best directions, traffic information, and as we all know soon that data will allow autonomous driving,” Taggart says. “Highly accurate locational underground pipeline data we think will drive autonomous excavation. If you have X, Y and Z coordinates, it will enable a host of future technological trends such as Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence. We are working on machine learning inside of GeoUnderground and look forward to providing our clients with more actionable data in the near future.”

Last year, Geospatial became a Google Cloud Technology Partner. That partnership allowed the company to build its GeoUnderground platform on the backbone of Google Maps, which Porter calls “the most subscribed and popular GIS/mapping platform for consumer and commercial applications.”

“GeoUnderground is our data capture and management system, which has evolved to become the most intuitive tool for the most casual user,” Porter says. “The GIS market is well served with powerful products and experts. However, our system is focused on the larger data capture opportunity for non-GIS technical personnel that collect situation, operational and maintenance data.”

By basing GeoUnderground on a widely used software, Porter says Geospatial made its platform accessible to wider group of potential users.

“It means that pipeline customers will have broad access to a truly familiar and intuitive data capture tool,” Porter says. “Anyone using Google Map apps will easily adopt this approach to data capture and project management. The functionality will continue to grow based on user needs. It’s a very much collaborative workspace.”

The partnership also helps Geospatial keep up with technological developments, according to Troy Taggart, president of the company.

“We have a build, buy or partner strategy when it comes to technology, and that’s why we partnered with Google Maps,” Taggart says. “We wanted a visualization of our data on a familiar background that users were already acclimated with and know how to use. Often when something does not already exist we will build it, and often it makes sense to partner with other companies that have a unique technology or software that we can clip on or integrate with our existing data acquisition technologies and blend it into our software.”

Geospatial works to connect “people and process” through advanced mobile, cloud-based software that is simple to use, Smith says. That focus on accessibility and collaboration has led to a technology platform that can be used by all levels of a company’s hierarchy, from executives to field employees.

“Our data solutions reach the C-suite, operators, construction analysts, GIS technicians and a host of field employees and contractors to better collaborate and inform,” Smith says. “Knowledge is power, but if it is not securely accessible to share, it doesn’t harness the true value.”

Geospatial works with pipeline companies and other asset owners to assess their infrastructure and find a solution that works for everyone.

“This requires listening and understanding the problem at hand,” Smith says. “In designing a solution, it requires collaboration with the client and their contractors. Our goal is minimal impact to the overall project, and to provide uncompromised accuracy and completeness.”

Whether a client is a returning customer or was referred by an engineer or State Department of Transportation utility coordinator, Geospatial recognizes that each case is different.

“We spend a great deal of time understanding every challenge,” Smith says. “We then ask for pertinent information regarding the project, such as any legacy data if available. Often underground assets are bought and sold many times and are lacking any real data. It is like putting a puzzle together.”

If they’re lucky, Geospatial will receive CAD files from the original design, which can then be fed into GeoUnderground software. The company’s propriety system will integrate the CAD files to provide a “lay of the land” with Google Maps.

Mapping Pipelines

Pipeline integrity has been a major driving force in the demand for accurate pipeline mapping. Providing accurate and accessible information about these assets is increasingly important as pipeline companies typically employ a number of outside contractors to perform maintenance or construction work.

“To effectively manage assets and reporting requirements, accurate position (coordinates) are essential,” Porter says. “Not only horizontal position to present on a map, but elevation and depth of burial. The ability to not only locate underground pipes, but identify utility conflicts is the key to damage prevention and reduced risk. The industry is demanding data that is accurate and complete, and to acquire this level of quality, several technologies may be required to get meaningful results.”

Geospatial serves the broad underground infrastructure marketplace, so its technology must be versatile to detect and map various materials and diameters in the “deep and entangled utility space,” Porter says of the company’s multiple methods of pipeline mapping and assessment.

These tools help Geospatial’s clients maintain integrity and meet governmental regulations in the effort to improve business.

“Pipeline integrity is becoming more and more spatially based, and less by linear reference (for location),” Porter says. “In addition to PHMSA, other agencies such as state DOTs for highway expansion projects require numerous utility relocates and accurate mapping of the final installations. This is required to manage utility conflicts and minimize damage potential going forward. Many waterway crossings require accurate 3D surveys for not only dredging operations, but also for safe clearance for bridge piles or other utility expansions. The use of in-pipe and over-pipe technologies is the key to the success of these projects.”

The passing of the PIPES Act in 2016 required pipeline companies to better record data about their systems. With the election of Donald Trump and his quick actions to authorize long-delayed pipeline projects and proposals to eliminate regulations, Porter admits that there is increased uncertainty on this front for the next four years.

“It’s very much a wait-and-see, as much of the regulatory backlog may take a back seat to other priorities and budget allocations,” Porter says.

While regulatory compliance remains a driving force, pipeline companies are starting to use data to make operational decisions.

“A decade ago, it was all about regulatory compliance,” Porter says. “Now, more than ever, pipeline operators are taking a hard look at bottom line financial performance and making informed and effective decisions on deployment of capital to reduce risk and improve performance. It’s not that regulations are subordinate, it’s to achieve safe and reliable delivery of energy.”

In recent years, the GIS industry has focused increasingly on improving pipeline mapping accuracy, Porter adds. Accuracy has steadily improved from 500 ft in the early days to 50 ft and now to better than 5 ft nationwide.

“In many instances, accuracy of 1 ft is required in XYZ – 3D,” Porter says. “As an industry, we are now talking about accuracy, not just ‘get it on a map.’”

Porter adds that the industry is “realizing the value of depth” — or the “Z” in XYZ coordinates. The industry is also working toward morphing 2D GIS into 3D systems with advanced referencing methods. Whenever a new segment is installed for a relocate, replacement or reroute, companies can conduct instant validation assessment of the newly installed pipe to record its position and geometry traits, such as bends and caliper measurements.

“Open trench surveying is common place, but how can we confirm HDD and deep pipe installations?” Porter asks. “This is where our technology can ‘map the gaps’ in construction programs. The benefits are an accurate baseline, damage prevention and avoiding utility conflicts.”

Managing Data

Because energy companies employ “a tremendous number of outside contractors,” including surveyors, pipeline builders and inspectors, Porter says these companies have “increasingly looked to cloud-based applications” to address challenges related to data gathering and management.

With companies managing hundreds or thousands of miles of pipelines, managing and accessing data on these facilities requires a comprehensive solution.

“We don’t manage the overall asset data, we manage change,” Taggart explains. “There is a service industry dedicated to data models, database management and GIS. Our position in the market is managing inbound data from projects and daily operations. Managing data is not a one-person or one department’s job. Data needs to be collected, organized and distributed properly if it is expected to have a positive effect on performance.”

Whether it is one mile or hundreds of miles of pipeline, Geospatial listens to its customers’ challenges and seeks to provide the right solution.

“Geospatial understands that locational data, especially three-dimensional data, tied to inspection, integrity and sensor data has tremendous value to the whole organization including its outside contractors and vendors,” Taggart says. “It became clear many years ago that different sets of data were siloed in separate data management platforms, and that seemed both inefficient and confusing.”

That’s why Geospatial built GeoUnderground. The system aims to provide the best solution for pipeline locational data through the cloud. The Google Maps-based delivery system is also adaptive and complementary to a variety of GIS and enterprise data management systems that Geospatial clients may already be using.

“Through GeoUnderground, pipeline owners can more effectively manage multiple projects or entire networks at a significantly lower cost by using our mobile app to collect and view important data sets in the field,” Taggart says. “Client GIS departments now get better data that is already geo-referenced and ready to import into legacy systems or the other way around.”

With so much data stored in the cloud, and the increasing threat of cyber-attacks, securing pipeline information is paramount to safety and reliability. Geospatial provides security by first hosting the data in Microsoft Azure infrastructure.

“Azure uses the best industry standards and beyond to secure that data and we can ramp that up with user management capabilities inside GeoUnderground that add layers of security,” Taggart says. “The infrastructure is managed by Geospatial, so there isn’t a need for the client to hire and manage IT staff and software engineers to update the system.”

Geospatial and its technology partners provide security while still allowing the data to be accessible wherever it is needed and on any digital device. The accessibility of highly accurate locational data has its own value, but also improves the value of other data, Taggart says. To make any improvement on an asset, you have to start somewhere.

“The owner of the asset can make much better decisions operationally and save time in the field with construction and maintenance,” Taggart says. “Knowing where something is, is truly the lowest common denominator to everything. There is a big push for digitization in the industry, and we believe locational data is extremely important.”

Taggart sees a parallel in the increased push for mapping pipelines with efforts to better map roadways.

“We see cars with crazy devices all over our streets grabbing accurate data so people can have the best directions, traffic information, and as we all know soon that data will allow autonomous driving,” he says. “Highly accurate locational underground pipeline data we think will drive autonomous excavation. If you have X, Y and Z coordinates, it will enable a host of future technological trends such as Augmented Reality and Artificial Intelligence. We are working on machine learning inside of GeoUnderground and look forward to providing our clients with more actionable data in the near future.”

Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines.

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