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Guest blog: Satellite water leak detection and gas pipeline monitoring

Blog posted by: Telespazio UK, 15 October 2021.

Satellite Water Leak Detection

In the UK, pipeline water leaks are often the result of aging, sometimes Victorian-era, iron pipes. Pipe degradation typically occurs through corrosion and/or movement due to ground deformation over time. Water supply networks are subject to leakage and a substantial amount is lost each year. Some water companies report losses of >20% percent of volume of water supplied. Ofwat, the UK regulator has put strict guidelines in 2019 to mandate that companies should reduce leakage by 15% by 2025, and many have now set their own, even more ambitious targets. Finding and accurately locating significant leakages is one of the challenges the water companies face. The key innovation of Telespazio UK’s solution is the development of a novel system that integrates all applicable Satellite Earth Observation technologies available in the market focusing on the sole purpose to achieve the best accuracy to prevent and detect water leaks.

  • Delivering a geographically full-scale monitoring tool, bringing awareness of the whole water network making detection of leakages and possible leakages easier.
  • Exposing current acceptable standards of water leakage by water companies whilst making a case for a higher standard of network resilience for overall customer satisfaction.
  • Narrowing the search radius to meters, which allows for more focused field effort in leakage detection thereby optimizing labour and operational expenses.

Telespazio UK has been undertaking soft market testing through 2019, 2020, and early 2021 investigating the feasibility and viability of a multi-threaded observational service drawing on EO satellite technology. The water industry is evaluating a range of technical solutions as possibilities to future operational leak-finding approaches. Each company has its preferences and sets its own priorities. Some of the market limitations Telespazio UK observed from the study are:

  • Presently, categorisation of the value of either knowing or not knowing of a water leak relates to the cost to remedy being advantageous over the cost of the leak itself. As the impact of climate change drives a greater number of protracted hosepipe bans, public opinion and expectations of water companies and their accountability should in future expect to focus on system resilience.
  • Many of the companies have evaluated remote sensing technologies from airborne platforms (aircraft, drones) to satellite based systems and have reported mixed results. Some scepticism around satellite services pervades, which will require demonstration of viability. With the combined service, Telespazio UK aims to demonstrate technical and commercial efficaciousness to industry.
  • Stakeholders interviewed for this project confessed to not having large spare budgets to spend on demonstrations related to innovation testing and adoption. The industry is slowly awakening to the climate and UK water crisis and shall need to tackle the challenge of running innovation alongside operations to test and validate and ultimately act as a replacement service, from the perspectives of budgetary requirements and in competent skills resource.

Telespazio aims to deliver satellite-derived water leak detections that are simply consumed both technically and commercially to support the sector in their short-term operational planning and network resilience improvements.

Satellite Services for Gas pipeline monitoring

The monitoring methods widely used for transmission pipelines include aerial surveillance using helicopters and foot patrols along the pipeline route. Although these methods ensure a high level of safety in pipeline operation, the cost is also very high. Various agricultural practices remain permitted over the pipeline corridor, and recent changes in environmental policy allows natural processes such as lateral river movements across floodplains to go on unchecked by human intervention. Where allowable, visual inspections of around thousands of KMs of network are conducted by helicopter surveys on a fortnightly basis. In many cases, immediate threats require the safe landing of the survey helicopter and direct intervention.

For immediate threats, activities could conceivably have been occurring for up to 13 days prior to the survey acquisition, or it may be unsafe to land adjacent to an immediate threat, further delaying intervention. Policy guidelines of fortnightly surveying is the result of risk/affordability assessment at the time of policy drafting, rather than a decision around the safety margin criticality for detecting and responding to threats in a timely manner. As the existing policy contemplates multi-modal surveying techniques, the status quo of our current practices around pipeline monitoring can be enhanced by using satellite imagery to reduce the overall risk to the high-pressure pipeline infrastructure and so deliver enhanced value to network customers.

Continuous monitoring through remote sensing (SARS), Visible Near Infrared (VNIR) and Short-Wave Infrared (SWIR) satellites to best support the operational routine detection of such events to improve the expedition of intervention detection through a greater collection frequency, and over the longer term replace the traditional helicopter/walking surveys. The satellite sensors have improved revisit rates over what was achievable just a few year ago. This coupled with; wide-area acquisition in a single overpass; cloud penetrating properties of SAR imaging; and sophisticated change detection algorithms and high-performance automated processing environments translates to an improved temporal window between threat initiation and threat detection.


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