Pipe Leak Detection System Employs Machine Learning to Limit Errors

Source: Xconomy on April 7, 2017 | David Holley

San Antonio—Even as Donald Trump is executing orders to roll back environmental regulations, numerous technology researchers are developing new systems that may aid oil and gas businesses in better detecting leaks that lead to emissions—including one on the west side of San Antonio.

The Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) is developing a machine learning system that can quickly process image data from various cameras, which detects leaks in pipes that deliver various types of environmentally dangerous materials, from methane to oil. SWRI received a nearly $800,000 U.S. Department of Energy grant in October to develop the system for methane leaks, which account for a smaller percentage of greenhouse emissions than gasses like carbon dioxide, but are considered more threatening because methane absorbs heat more effectively, the institute says.

“It’s mitigation of emissions through early detection,” says Maria Araujo, manager of R&D in SWRI’s high reliability systems section. “You could have a valve or compressor that has a leak. You’re not going to know because methane has no smell. It has to be a specialized system.”

SWRI’s device would use thermal or infrared cameras equipped with infrared sensors to watch for the leaks—cameras that can see what the naked eye can’t. The organization may target the thermal cameras because, at about $10,000, they are about a fifth of the cost of the infrared cameras typically used to detect methane, Araujo says.

One of the primary goals of SWRI’s machine learning system is to remove the human element—cameras currently used need to have someone monitor the feeds to keep an eye out for the leaks. SWRI’s device would be autonomous, automatically alerting the user if something is wrong.

The data from the images recorded by a SWRI camera are processed by algorithms that SWRI is developing, which feed into a neural network that’s being trained to determine whether there’s a leak or not. SWRI plans to use Nvidia Tegra computing board to process everything.

SWRI isn’t alone in this kind of research. IBM (NYSE: IBM) is developing a small sensor chip with a laser that can detect when methane molecules pass through the air above the chip, according to Scientific American. The chips, which would be placed at various intervals along a pipeline like SWRI’s technology, would alert the owner of the pipeline about the leak, according to the magazine.

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