Since the late 1960s, trenchless technology has evolved exponentially to become one of the fastest and most efficient ways of installing various oil and gas pipeline crossings. This method has proven to be ideal for traversing product pipelines across numerous challenging terrain and subsurface obstacles, such as roadways, railways, and waterways along the intended route.

While existing trenchless construction methods, such as horizontal directional drilling (HDD), have been used extensively in the oil and gas industry with great success, there are a growing number of new and innovative technologies available which complement the range of current trenchless techniques.

The emergence of groundbreaking 21st-century technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) have helped to revolutionize numerous sectors, and the trenchless industry is no exception.

In this article, we will look at these innovative solutions and describe how they are being integrated into oil and gas pipeline crossing construction.

Augmented Reality (AR)

Augmented reality (AR) is a type of technology that superimposes computer-generated three-dimensional images into the real-world environment. Using handheld devices, such as smartphones or tablets, digital models can be overlaid onto actual objects, allowing the user to view simulated information in real-time and from various angles.

This technology is particularly useful since the biggest threat to oil and gas pipeline crossings, and the trenchless industry at large, is the presence of existing underground infrastructure and utilities. According to the Common Ground Alliance (CGA), inadvertent utility strikes have resulted in $1.7 billion in property damage and are responsible for more than 400 deaths in the last 20 years.

With AR, georeferenced substructural elements, such as existing pipes, conduits, and cables, can be viewed through the lens of a handheld electronic device, such as an iPad, allowing the viewer to ‘see’ the location of these features in real-time and in full context of the environment being observed.

For example, using data pertaining to underground natural gas pipelines, it may be possible to point the device at an object, like surface well infrastructure, to see an augmented representation of the underground pipes that connect to it. As the person moves around the environment with the handheld device, so too does the 3D generated image. In addition to the services serving the well, the operator can also observe other underground utilities recorded during subsurface surveys.

Virtual Reality (VR)

Virtual reality (VR) is closely related to AR. However, while AR allows users to view three-dimensional images superimposed onto real-world objects, VR immerses the user in a fully simulated three-dimensional environment. Using a specialized headset, engineers, contractors, and operators can interact with 3D models as though they existed in real space.

According to a 2017 DIRT Report, more than 50% of underground utility damages result from improper excavation practices.

Using the enhanced level of interaction provided by VR, in-depth insights into how oil and gas pipeline crossing will interact with the surrounding environment can be observed in real-time. VR can, therefore, help horizontal directional drilling (HDD) contractors better prepare for trenchless construction activities before mobilizing on site. For example, simulated soil conditions, combined with a 360-degree view of the proposed construction site, can help determine how the drill is expected to react in a given environment.

Another critical application for VR in oil and gas crossings is the training of operation and construction staff. Through a series of simulated virtual scenarios, trainees can learn how to perform various realistic job site operations without being exposed to the risks associated with oil and gas crossing construction and maintenance.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones)

Drones, which were once used as recreational tools, are now finding their place in the trenchless construction, maintenance, and inspection of oil and gas pipeline crossings. Unmanned aerial vehicles can play a crucial role in identifying potential risks during trenchless activities, such as HDD and pipe jacking.

In the pre-construction phase, drones can be used to survey the proposed construction site to gather essential data needed for successful trenchless construction, such as site topography, site geometry, and nearby existing infrastructure.

These vehicles can also help support project managers and schedulers through the real-time monitoring of site activities. High-resolution orthophotographs can be used to identify changes and track construction progress.

Unmanned aerial vehicles can also be equipped with various detectors to identify leaks in crossings. This is especially useful in oil and gas pipelines in hard-to-reach or challenging terrain. For example, thermographic imaging sensors installed on drones make it possible to detect heat radiated from pipeline structures with or without visible illumination.

Aerial thermographic imaging is, therefore, ideal for finding and assessing leaks in oil and gas pipelines that transport fluids with temperatures that differ from the ambient temperature. Leaks in underground pipe crossings affect the temperature of the surrounding soil, allowing these leaks to be spotted by thermal cameras and sensors. Using this technique, defects in oil and gas pipe crossings can be identified safely and without performing costly excavations.

What We've Learned

Trenchless construction, rehabilitation, and inspection of oil and gas pipelines have remained mostly unchanged for over a decade. However, new and upcoming technologies are set to revolutionize this industry.

Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and drone technologies have breathed new life into various trenchless methods, increasing their efficiency, as well as providing additional functionality and support.

These technologies have also helped to further minimize human health and safety risks by allowing specific tasks to be performed without having personnel present on site.