A pipeline rupture can not only lose money and face for the operator, but also cause severe environmental damage. Pipeline maintenance is an extremely responsible task that can save money, wildlife and lives. Just as a pipe is round, there can’t be any corners cut during pipeline maintenance. Oil and gas companies invest heavily in preventing pipeline incidents, and one of the innovations in this field has been predictive pipeline maintenance – instead of waiting for an incident, a company identifies likely failures using a risk-based approach.

Risk-based predictive maintenance (RBPrM) of oil pipelines is a crucial development in an industry that has to monitor many tens of thousands of miles of pipes, overland, underground and at the bottom of the ocean, many of which are several decades old and are reaching the age where safety may begin to be a concern. RBPrM is an umbrella methodology that incorporates many data tools and modeling approaches that take into account equipment engineering and failure rates, component age, environmental threats, risk of human error and other factors to predict the chance of pipeline failure before it occurs. Corrosion rates and other threats can be assessed quantitatively, and the models predict bottlenecks, risk spots and deterioration of pipeline components.

Once identified, problematic sections of the pipeline need to be cut and replaced using pipe cutting machines. Before this is done, the pipe needs to be drained and decontaminated, in order to remove all flammable materials for the flame-cutting and welding. The new sections will then be welded in place.

When it comes to underwater cutting, remotely operating vehicles have been gaining ground recently. While they are not devoid of problems – most are operated by wire, and therefore have limited range and are subject to certain risks such as cable entanglement – they are an excellent way to conduct underwater inspections and repairs without putting humans in jeopardy. Unlike human operators who require a supply of oxygen and have difficulty adjusting to changes in pressure, an ROV can dive in minutes and stay submerged for hours without a problem.

With improvements in computer technology and robotics, the pipeline maintenance process will continue to become more time- and cost-efficient both underwater and on dry land.