Researchers and industry are collaborating on the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) to make pipeline inspection easier, safer and more economical. A recent UAS inspection covered 11 miles of Colonial Pipeline Company right of way in rural Virginia. The flight was conducted by the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership at Virginia Tech with support from Pipeline Research Council International.
“Aerial inspection of energy pipelines is federally required and typically performed using manned aircraft flying at low altitudes,” said David Yoel, chief executive officer of American Aerospace Technologies, the company that provided the fixed-wing UAS for the experiment. “If we validate unmanned aircraft technologies, we can reduce risks to pilots and the public, and more efficiently protect the country’s critical infrastructure.”
The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership, comprised of academic partners Virginia Tech, Rutgers University and the University of Maryland, is one of six Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved unmanned aircraft testing programs. This test was unique because the FAA approval came with the mandate to operate the test with a case aircraft.
A piloted chase helicopter followed behind to ensure safety beyond the ground observers' sight line. The aircraft vantage point offers an additional sensor input to understand flight safety issues over a long duration and great distance, such as with pipeline inspections.
The research is part of Pipeline Research Council International’s Right of Way Automated Monitoring (RAM) Project, which is looking at innovative technologies to improve and automate pipeline monitoring in the United States and internationally.