The PIPES Act of 2016 was signed into law on June 22, 2016. The purposes of the act are to protect the U.S. infrastructure of pipelines and to enhance public safety. PIPES requires certification, data management, testing and mapping of all types of the more than 2.6 million miles of buried energy pipelines across the country. Its impact on geospatial mapping and data is significant.

“Everyone has seen this coming, so no one is shocked or panicking, but clearly they are picking up the pace of creating new processes and are willing to understand how new technologies can help to meet these new demands,” says Troy Taggart, president of Geospatial Corporation, which provides cloud-based solutions to locate and digitally map underground pipelines and other infrastructure in three dimensions in the U.S.

When a reauthorization of the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) pipeline safety act expired in 2015, only half of the act’s 42 directives had been completed. The PIPES Act of 2016 ensures that the agency completes these requirements through a more dynamic and data-driven approach.

“The expected changes will impact data management, sharing and demand, which, in addition to pipelines, will include facilities,” Taggart says. “Energy companies across the country have been expecting this and have been exploring solutions that include more accurate data collection that will blend with their existing data sets that reside in legacy systems.”

Since energy companies employ many outside contractors such as surveyors, pipeline builders and inspectors, they have increasingly looked to cloud-based applications to solve the challenges around data gathering and management. This has prompted surveyors, builders and inspectors to become more proactive in looking for better internal platforms for infrastructure mapping that can “sync” with their customers and provide the best deliverables. Much of the data they work with is also heavily tied to location, since nearly every pipeline is considered to be in a high consequence area (HCA).

These professionals are implementing cloud-based software for infrastructure mapping because with the cloud, data can be easily shared with those who need the information. The cloud also enables multiple users to add the freshest data sets through almost any browser.

“There are many advantages including access, mobility, collaboration and sharing, especially when that information is needed in the field or when the data is in the field needing to be collected,” Taggart says. “With the cloud, data can be retrieved, stored and available in near real time. Security is clearly a concern, but that is dissipating as cloud technologies have improved security measures by hosting with well-known data infrastructure platforms such as Microsoft, Amazon and Google that take security very seriously.”

Pipeline mapping techniques vary depending upon the needs of projects. They include:

  • Inertial navigation sensors (INS), which have been used extensively over the past decade for mapping operating and out of service pipelines.
  • Electromagnetic mapping, which uses conventional electromagnetic locating technologies like hand-held receivers combined with EM transmitters, with a signal either applied to a line or induced via the soils. By walking along the path of the utility following the resultant signal, the technician can determine the position of the pipeline or conduit and proceed to follow and record the position of the line in the X and Y position, and roughly the (Z) or depth at the position of each particular reading.
  • Electromagnetic pipeline mapping technology, which employs a set of magnetic field sensors to accurately measure the 3D vector from sensors to an underground utility, and then automatically combines this vector with absolute positions obtained via global navigation satellite system (GNSS) or other survey methods to obtain the 3D coordinates of the utility. This approach enables the user to measure the 3D vector from any vantage point within range and its built-in acceleration and magnetic sensors allow it to operate in almost any position.
  • Infrared and microwave technologies, which locate underground oil, gas, water, etc., and detect voids and leaks.
  • Electromagnetic underground infrastructure location and mapping technologies, which locate all metallic lines, including electrical instrumentation, CATV, telephone, steel or ductile iron pipes. The EM equipment consists of a transmitter and receiver. The transmitter applies a signal set to a specific frequency to a utility line or an insulated metallic line, and the receiver picks up the signal.
  • Ground penetrating radar, which locates metallic and non-metallic lines if soil conditions are suitable. The GPR equipment sends continuous electromagnetic pulse through the earth or other structures, reviews the reflected waves and displays results to construct a picture of the subsurface structures.
  • Vacuum excavation, in which specially outfitted trucks empty high-pressure water or air with powerful vacuums to lift away sand, soil or clay to expose a pipeline.

With technologies like these, state DOT highway expansion project utility relocates and mappings of final pipeline installations can be done more efficiently and accurately.

“This is required to manage utility conflicts and damage potential going forward,” Taggart says. “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 safe success of these projects.”

These technology breakthroughs can’t come soon enough.

In 2010, a Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) pipeline explosion in San Bruno, Calif., killed eight people, injured another 66 people and destroyed 38 homes. PG&E was fined $1.6 billion for a poorly maintained pipeline with faulty welding work that dated back to the 1950s. One key problem was that PG&E did not have maps of the underground infrastructure organized and available to company management or federal inspectors.

So how can companies best prepare themselves for infrastructure mapping and the requirements of the PIPES Act?

“Companies should consult experts in 3D mapping to put in place the right strategy and plan for their organizations,” Taggart says. “They should also do a deep dive into the existing data that they have, and assess the accuracy of that data by analyzing how the original survey or locates were performed and what technologies were used. Keep in mind, The National Pipeline Map only required 500 feet on center accuracy. If locating was performed, that data is only longitude and latitude and absent of depth. This data is also at best sub-meter accurate and frankly, that depends on the frequency of locate marks. Most companies are employing ILI (in-line inspection) mapping tools with accurate AGM GPS (above ground marker global positioning system) in all inspection runs. This is the most cost-effective method, given proper program controls to insure required meter level accuracies.”