Undersea oil pipelines are typically inspected about once every five years ... but what happens if one of them gives out between those inspections? That's where the Norwegian SmartPipe project comes in. Initiated in 2006, it's aimed at developing self-monitoring pipelines that continuously transmit real-time status reports to shore.
Developed by Norwegian research group SINTEF, the prototype pipelines created so far have been equipped with sensor-packed belts spaced 24 meters (79 ft) apart along the length of the pipe. These belts monitor factors such as pipewall thickness, tension, temperature and vibration.
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Additional electronics, embedded in the pipeline's insulating outer layer of polypropylene, allow data to be wirelessly relayed from the various belts to the shore – or to an offshore drilling platform.
In tests performed last fall, 200 meters (656 ft) of the pipeline was lowered into Norway's Orkanger Harbor, to see how the electronics would handle being submerged in seawater. They reportedly did well, although some sensors were destroyed in subsequent reeling tests, in which the pipeline was reeled onto drums as it would be for transport. According to SINTEF, small modifications to the sensors should remedy that problem.
The SmartPipe project is now about to move into its pilot phase, in which the pipelines will actually be put to real-world use. An American oil company, which was previously looking into developing smart pipelines of its own, has expressed an interest in the technology.