UMR Study Finds Gas Pipelines Could
Serve as Wireless Links
12/13/2005 - Missouri University of Science and Technology
Detecting leaks and conducting
maintenance in America's aging network of natural gas pipelines will
eventually be a job for wireless robots, according to researchers at
the University of Missouri-Rolla.
"As the existing natural gas pipeline ages, it is critical that
these pipelines be periodically inspected for corrosion, cracking,
and other problems that can eventually cause a failure of the
pipeline," says Dr. Kelvin Erickson, chair and professor of
electrical and computer engineering at UMR.
"For larger transmission lines, passive
flow-powered platforms -- also known as pigs -- are used to carry an
array of inspection sensors.
However, in smaller,
lower-pressure distribution mains, 'pigs' are inappropriate and so
robotic devices are currently under development for the inspection
and repair of these pipelines.
Secure, reliable communication
is needed to support these robotic devices."
In a Department of Energy-funded study, a team of UMR faculty found
that the 1.2 million miles of natural gas distribution and
transmission pipelines that crisscross the United States could be
used to build wireless networks.
Known as 802.11 or Wi-Fi,
wireless networks use radio links instead of cables to communicate
Initial tests were conducted on a small pipeline loop at UMR, with
subsequent field testing on a much longer pipeline loop at the
Battelle Pipeline Simulation Facility near Columbus, Ohio.
"We found that we could communicate over a little less than a mile
with a 24-inch pipe," Erickson says.
"It did well, even around
The wireless network could support un-tethered inspection
technologies, like the RoboScan™ and Explorer™ robots, for the
evaluation of pipeline conditions.
The pipeline can transmit a radio
signal and deliver gas at the same time, Erickson says.
"The robots would try to detect a problem within a pipeline before
it became a problem," Erickson adds.
"There could be hundreds of
these miniature robots that reside in the nation's pipelines,
roaming and looking for deterioration."
The robots can currently send back visuals from inside the pipeline
as well as conduct electronic scans of the pipe.
Eventually, the robots would
not only inspect but also repair pipelines, Erickson says.
"This is even more important in the northeast, where it's denser,"
"Repairing pipelines there can be difficult because
the pipes are often under buildings.
The robots may one day be able to fix the problem
without having to dig down to the pipeline."
Working with Erickson on the project were Dr. Shari Dunn-Norman,
associate professor of geological sciences and engineering; Dr. Ann
Miller, the Cynthia Tang Missouri Distinguished Professor of
Computer Engineering; Dr. Keith Stanek, professor of electrical and
computer engineering; and Dr. Cheng-Hsaio Wu, professor of
electrical and computer engineering.