Posted on March 7, 2014

PG&E, Others Developing Mini-Robot to Enhance Pipeline Inspections

By Debbie Felix

SAN RAMON — PG&E has joined with NYSEARCH, National Grid, Rochester Gas & Electric, New York State Gas & Electric and Honeybee Inc. to develop a robot prototype that will enhance the companies’ ability to visually inspect natural gas pipelines for signs of corrosion, while minimizing lengthy constructions digs.

Small enough to be a toy, the device has the potential to save time and money for utilities. (Photos by Honeybee Inc./NYSEARCH.)

Small enough that it looks like a toy, the device has the potential to deliver big savings for the industry and PG&E customers.

In many locations, such as where underground pipelines run below railroad tracks or major freeways, utility companies add pipeline casings as an additional protective layer around the gas pipeline to help insulate it from harm. However, pipe casings are often in hard-to-reach areas that require extensive, time-consuming excavation whenever utilities need to conduct routine visual safety inspections.

To make the necessary assessments of casings more efficient and less intrusive to communities, PG&E is supporting the development of a small, tethered robot equipped with high-definition cameras. This robot is designed to travel down through tight, rounded vents to the space between the pipe and casing to record the condition of each covered segment.

Rolling on tiny magnetic wheels, soon this robot will be checking on PG&E’s nearly 2,000 pipeline casings without the need to dig down to the pipe. But for now, the prototype is undergoing extensive trials.

“Our testing so far shows that this device has the potential to save time and money for many gas companies who have applications for this new inspection technology,” said Daphne D’Zurko, executive director of NYSEARCH, a collaborative research and development organization comprised of gas utility member companies.

PG&E is working with other utilities and companies to test the new tool.

Through funding from PG&E and other partnering utilities, NYSEARCH is managing the development and testing of the tool, which is being designed by their robotic tool vendor, Honeybee Robotics. The first prototype, named “MK1”, was tested at National Grid last year, and the refined, second prototype is scheduled to be tested in May 2014.

“We’re excited to see the next prototype in action and learn how we can apply it to our ongoing inspection programs,” said François Rongere, PG&E’s R&D and Innovation Manager in Gas Operations. “This new technology is just one example of the great value brought by the NYSEARCH R&D consortium to PG&E’s customers.”

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"PG&E" refers to Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a subsidiary of PG&E Corporation.
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