‘Cracking’ the code on pipeline crack inspection tools

Enbridge, NDT Global expect next-generation robot to be in service by 2019

For a truly granular view, sometimes it helps to start with a bigger sandbox.

Last year, Enbridge and NDT Global, a leading ultrasonic pipeline inspection firm, announced a multi-year project to develop a next-generation in-line inspection (ILI) tool—or robot, in NDT Global’s lexicon—that would advance crack assessment prowess in crude oil pipelines.

Teams with NDT Global and Enbridge have now developed a new technology carrier, with a functional prototype inspection tool expected to be ready for testing this fall. This new crack detection robot represents a “step change” in technological capabilities, says NDT Global’s Tom Machnik, and it’s based largely on being able to capture and analyze massive amounts of data from a pipeline’s interior.

“That’s a huge part of it. Just handling that data is a pretty significant undertaking,” says Machnik, a key account manager with NDT Global based near Edmonton, Alberta. “Even just a few years ago, you’d typically measure data collection from an ILI tool run in tens, or maybe hundreds, of gigabytes. Now we’re into multiple terabytes—and this new robot is going to be recording dozens of terabytes.

“So to be able to properly manage all that data—storage, analysis, hardware, software—it means significant developments all across the board.”

In-line inspection (ILI) tools—or “smart pigs,” to use industry jargon—are highly complex pieces of equipment that move through our pipes and use advanced sensor technology to inspect pipe walls millimeter by millimeter, searching for dents, tiny imperfections, metal loss and corrosion.

While rare, cracking can also occur in pipelines through a variety of factors, including incremental slope movement, weld quality, and the original manufacturing process.

This next-generation crack detection robot is based on development of a new technology carrier that “sees” cracks better, based on the way sound travels through pipe steel, says Edmonton-based Enbridge pipeline engineer Owen Burdek.

“Current crack inspection tools have excellent detection capabilities. They’re very valuable to our integrity management program. But they also tend to have an issue with accurately sizing some cracks—and that sizing uncertainty forces us to make overly conservative decisions, sometimes resulting in digs we didn’t need to perform,” says Burdek.

By applying a new level of resolution to enormous data sets, it’s expected that this next-generation crack detection tool will boost reliability and confidence in the area of crack assessment—fine-tuning Enbridge’s preventative maintenance dig program, and making a safe pipeline network even safer.

“This next-generation robot will allow us to greatly reduce the uncertainty of a given crack’s size, so we focus more on those cracks that need our attention,” says Burdek.

In 2017, Enbridge invested $1.95 billion (CAD and USD) in the fitness of our energy infrastructure, focusing heavily on prevention.

“It’s important to innovate, and it’s also important to innovate at a fast pace,” notes Trevor Grams, Enbridge’s director of Research, Development and Innovation. “We’re constantly driving toward the development—and timely implementation—of solutions that meet our business needs.”

NDT Global is building this new inspection robot at its research and development facility in Germany. After validation tests in late 2018, the robot is expected to be put into service along Enbridge’s Mainline pipeline system by 2019.

“This is a pre-emptive measure,” says Burdek. “It’ll be a great addition to our tool box, because we will have greater confidence that this tool is giving us accurate and reliable data.”