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Innovation Profile: Using drones for pipeline monitoring

Former Israeli air force captain uses his aviation experience to enhance monitoring of Canada’s oil and gas pipelines.

One of the latest innovations in pipeline monitoring technology has unexpected origins—in the Israeli military.

In 2015, Didi Horn had been with the Israeli air force for nearly a decade, working his way up to the rank of captain of a drone squadron. His experience as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone pilot had taught him much about the technology’s potential. This experience, and his own sense of entrepreneurial opportunity, got Horn increasingly interested in finding commercial applications for this technology.

“I realized that while on the military side, there were drones of every shape and size, on the commercial side, there was virtually nothing,” Horn says. He travelled the world, went to conferences and asked questions. His research taught him there was enormous potential for using drones to monitor long-distance energy pipelines.

SkyX co-founder Didi Horn adapted his expertise in drone technology with the military for use monitoring energy pipelines. Photo: courtesy SkyX.

As a result, Horn created SkyX, a startup pipeline monitoring technology firm. He founded the company with two close connections, engineers David Vorsin and Liron Shemesh. The trio worked relentlessly—brainstorming in coffee shops and other places—to produce a prototype, while going for a period of eight months without any salary.

Dubbed the SkyOne, the company’s first pipeline monitoring UAV is unique in that it uses a fixed-wing configuration while in horizontal flight, but shifts to vertical landing and takeoff. This allows the drone to travel quickly over long distances—at speeds of 100 kilometres per hour—yet also land in tight spaces with high accuracy.

Capable of carrying up to 1.5 kilograms of cameras and associated equipment, the SkyOne comes with sensors that monitor pipelines for leaks or corrosion using thermal imaging. Visual imaging allows users to catch right-of-way violations and vegetation encroachment. As well, the UAV is fully automated, using GPS-tracking to closely follow the pipeline’s path, all the while gathering data and sending back real-time information to home base.

Canada contains thousands of kilometres of pipeline criss-crossing remote terrain, which makes it a natural fit for this kind of drone inspection technology. But Horn weighed several other potential locations, including South Africa and Australia, before setting up base in Markham, Ontario.

“We thought Canada would be the best option, and still think it’s one of the best markets that combined this triangle: an abundance of natural resources, the need to inspect and monitor large spaces that are usually sparsely populated, and proactive drone regulations,” Horn says.

If we can provide good information at a lower cost, it’s beneficial for the industry.

Didi Horn, co-founder of SkyX

Launching SkyX in Canada does bring up questions about how the UAV will withstand extreme weather, however. The company had to design landing stations (to be positioned strategically along pipeline routes) to serve as wireless rechargers for the SkyOne, which can travel roughly 100 kilometres with one charge. The stations also double as climate-controlled shelters to shield the UAV from harsh conditions while it is recharging.

Of course, the UAV is not meant to fly during rain or snow storms—just as a manned aircraft would likely stay grounded for visibility and safety concerns. However, an added benefit to using an automated pipeline inspection system like SkyX is decreased risk compared with monitoring using human pilots, notes Nir Rikovitch, the company’s vice-president of research and development.

“When a helicopter or Cessna piloted by a person flies over a pipeline, the risk of something happening if there’s a storm is elevated because we’re talking about risk to human life,” he says. “If something should happen to the UAV, it’s not such a big deal.”

Another major benefit to adopting an automated drone system for aerial pipeline inspections is cost. Sending employees out to monitor remote locations can carry considerable expenses for a company.

“The price of a barrel of oil has dropped over the past three years, but fixed costs have stayed the same, so if we can provide good information at a lower cost, it’s beneficial for the industry,” Horn says.

Additionally, the use of drones offers an opportunity for industry to reduce its environmental footprint. Pipelines, particularly lengthier ones, can pass through largely untouched natural areas, as well as private property or Indigenous lands, where potential disturbances need to be carefully tracked and minimized. Fewer boots on the ground can ensure remote areas remain undisturbed unless absolutely necessary.

“Maybe you don’t need a person to drive out to the pipeline. Maybe having images from the sky can mitigate concerns without sending someone out there,” Rikovitch says.

The startup company has grown to 23 employees and is moving closer to a commercial launch of its SkyOne product, with pilot programs with two western Canadian companies underway. SkyX expects to move forward with deployment throughout 2018 and 2019.

And while the company has set its sights on Canada’s oil and gas industry, its drone technology is an innovation that could readily be adapted to monitor water pipelines or agricultural fields. Businesses in other countries are also keeping a close watch on SkyX’s progress. SkyX is in negotiations with a company in South America and another in Central Asia to monitor pipelines there.

“We’re hearing from people all over that they’ve basically waited for this kind of solution,” Horn says. “Now we just need to show them that this is a mature product.”