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Smart pipelines are now seeing a new generation of sensors that are seamlessly integrated into the pipeline itself.  New pipelines will come alive with big data flowing as quickly as the fuel pumped through it.  This next generation Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems, or MEMS may be the future, but existing pipelines can be retrofit with sensors too, both external and internal to the pipe. 


While the functional elements of MEMS are miniaturized structures, sensors, actuators, and microelectronics, the most notable (and perhaps most interesting) elements are the microsensors and microactuators.  Microsensors and microactuators are appropriately categorized as “transducers”, which are defined as devices that convert energy from one form to another. In the case of microsensors, the device typically converts a measured mechanical signal into an electrical signal.

Existing Pipelines

Around 55,000 miles of crude oil trunk lines connect regional markets in the US. Oil wells connect to this backbone through 40,000 miles of gathering lines. And the end products of refineries travel through 95,000 miles of pipelines.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there are some 305,000 miles of interstate and intrastate natural gas transmission pipelines in the US, with an additional 1.25 million miles of natural gas distribution pipeline.


Natural Resources Canada reports that there are more than 840,000 kilometres (km) of transmission, gathering and distribution pipelines in Canada — including 117,000 km of large-diameter transmission lines — with most provinces having significant pipeline infrastructure. Of this amount, about 73,000 km are federally regulated pipelines, which are primarily transmission pipelines. Pipelines are generally buried underground and operate in both remote and populated areas, with major crude oil and natural gas pipelines servicing most major Canadian cities.  Generally, pipelines that cross provincial borders are regulated by the federal government, and pipelines that are entirely within one province are regulated by the respective provincial authority where they are located. Provincially regulated lines include the smaller natural gas distribution pipelines that go to every house equipped with a natural gas furnace or water heater. For example, there are more than 450,000 km of these local distribution pipelines in Canada.


The pipelines are mostly coated steel pipe buried underground. Oil pipelines typically transport liquid at pressures between 600 and 1000 psi, while natural gas pipelines go up to 1500 psi. These high pressures are why ruptures can be so serious, and why monitoring and detecting flaws in advance is so important, particularly given the age of some of these pipes. According to the US DOT, more than half are at least 50 years old.

Therefore, the need for a means to tightly monitor these pipelines has never been greater.  Once a rupture occurs, action is needed to stem the flows of product and stop the leak.

A network based upon the Internet of Things (IoT) is the sort of advancements necessary to better management pipelines.  Why? Because the current older technology SCADA based solutions are too sparely deployed and a more granular solution is needed to bring a keener focus to the performance of the pipelines.  SCADA also has limited functionality and IoT can bring a myriad of sensors to bear to monitor a multitude of aspects that are not normally seen by SCADA.

Source : (IBM)

With a SCADA system, we connect at major points in the pipeline and monitor flow and perhaps control automated valves and adjust pump pressures.  With IoT we can distribute the monitoring all along the pipeline to provide a comprehensive picture of pipeline performance.  Used with SCADA with IoT adds even more value to the solution.

IoT sensors have to overcome the challenges of a pipeline installation, such as:

  • Systems need to be resilient
  • Standard open communications schemes are relatively new to the industry
  • New ways of working for industry participants, support providers and systems vendors
  • Often need to work in parallel with data feeds to the service company systems
  • Assets such as drilling rigs may not be company owned – security challenges in many
  • locations and practices
  • Need for robust interactions will tend to conflict with security and ownership challenges

Here is an example of sensor types that are available today and can be used to provide deeper insights into the performance of a pipeline.


Temperature – A pipeline is subject to both internal and external temperatures.  The sun might heat up a pipeline and friction caused by the flows may create heat internally.  Sensors can measure internal and external temperatures to 1/100th of a degree to reveal deltas and provide evidence of anomalies.

Humidity – Humidity is defined as the amount of water vapour in an atmosphere of air or other gases. The most commonly used terms are “Relative Humidity (RH).

Solar Radiation – Often used in conjunction with temperature sensors, solar radiation sensors detect the sun’s light and measure the nanometer wavelengths of the colour temperature, hours of radiation, angle of radiation, and broadband variations.  A pyranometer is a type of actinometer used for measuring solar irradiance on a planar surface and it is designed to measure the solar radiation flux density (W/m2) from the hemisphere above within a wavelength range 0.3 μm to 3 μm.

Pressure – Pressure sensor is a device that senses pressure and converts it into an electric signal. Here, the amount depends upon the level of pressure applied.  These sensors make it possible to create IoT systems that monitor systems and devices that are pressure propelled such as pipelines.  With any deviation from standard pressure range, the device notifies the system administrator about any problems that should be fixed.

Vibration – Vibration sensors can be used for predictive maintenance of rotating machines such as motors, pumps, compressors and fans.

Chemical – Chemical sensors are applied in a number of different industries. Their goal is to indicate changes in liquid or to find out air chemical changes. They play an important role in bigger cities, where it is necessary to track changes and protect the population. Main use cases of chemical sensors can be found in Industrial environmental monitoring and process control, intentionally or accidentally released harmful chemical detection, explosive and radioactive detection, recycling processes on Space Station, pharma industries and laboratory etc. Following are most common kind of chemical sensors in use:

  • Chemical field-effect transistor
  • Chemiresistor
  • Electrochemical gas sensor
  • Fluorescent chloride sensors
  • Hydrogen sulfide sensor
  • Nondispersive infrared sensor
  • pH glass electrode
  • Potentiometric sensor
  • Zinc oxide nanorod sensor

Gas Detection – Gas sensors are similar to the chemical ones, but are specifically used to monitor changes of the air quality and detect the presence of various gases. They are used for the detection of toxic or combustible gas and hazardous gas monitoring. Following are some common Gas sensors:

  • Carbon dioxide sensor
  • Breathalyzer
  • Carbon monoxide detector
  • Catalytic bead sensor
  • Hydrogen sensor
  • Air pollution sensor
  • Nitrogen oxide sensor
  • Oxygen sensor
  • Ozone monitor
  • Electrochemical gas sensor
  • Gas detector
  • Hygrometer
  • Methane

Of all the gases emitted from a pipeline, methane is considered to be the worse since it cannot be seen nor tasted, yet it is considered to be the second biggest worldwide cause for global warming and the destruction of the atmosphere.  So, detecting leakage from pipelines is not only economically smart, but also critical for environmental protection.

Analog to Digital Adapters – Since most pipeline already exist, and they are old builds, they still use analog gauges.  New IoT sensors are now bolted-on to these gauges to read values and convert them to digital signals for seamless integration of the old with the new technologies.

Impurity and Contaminate Detection – Sensors can be used to detect foreign objects and material build-ups within the pipeline.  Wax build-up can affect flow rates and create undue pressure in the pipe.  Detection can provide insight for cleaning the pipeline with a PIG and then measure the cleanliness after the cleaning.

Valve Actuation – SCADA has been monitoring and controlling valves for decades, now IoT integration with digital values for precision accuracy can be performed.

Video as a Sensor – Image sensors are instruments which are used to convert optical images into electronic signals for displaying or storing files electronically.  The major use of image sensor is found in digital camera & modules, medical imaging and night vision equipment,thermal imaging devices, radar, sonar, media house, Biometric & IRIS devices.

Infrared – An infrared sensor is a sensor which is used to sense certain characteristics of its surroundings by either emitting or detecting infrared radiation. It is also capable of measuring the heat being emitted by the objects.

Accelerometer – Accelerometer is a transducer that is used to measure the physical or measurable acceleration experienced by an object due to inertial forces and converts the mechanical motion into an electrical output. It is defined as rate of change of velocity with respect to time.

Gyroscope – A sensor or device which is used to measure the angular rate or angular velocity is known as Gyro sensors, Angular velocity is simply defined as a measurement of speed of rotation around an axis. It is a device used primarily for navigation and measurement of angular and rotational velocity in 3-axis directions. The most important application is monitoring the orientation of an object.

LiDAR – Drones flying over the pipeline, equipped with LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) inspection is a better, faster and more accurate technology to use for analyzing the shape and condition of a pipeline.

Compressor Health – new compressors are being manufactured with tightly coupled IoT sensor technology built into the device and provides significant situational awareness to the health status of the compressor.

Acoustic and Harmonics – Detecting sounds and the combination of sounds to derive harmonics is becoming popular in many industries including pipelines.  Pipelines ‘sing’ and changes to this song can be indicative of problems and tell operators of issues such as cracks, breaches, and ruptures.  The sounds from pipelines can even be subsonic or ultrasonic compared to human hearing but sensors can hear it and understand its consistency.  When it varies, this change demands investigation to determine why it varied acoustically.

Proximity – A device that detects the presence or absence of a nearby object, or properties of that object, and converts it into signal which can be easily read by user or a simple electronic instrument without getting in contact with them.

Photoelectric – Photoelectric sensors provide non-contact, accurate detection of targets. They emit infrared, red or laser light and switch to an output state if a target interrupts the emitted light. These units come in three primary types: through-beam, retro-reflective and diffuse. These sensors can check for presence, color, distance, size, shape, and many more applications. They perform at longer distances than alternative sensing methods, while offering many mounting options and the ultimate in flexibility.

Laser – Laser distance sensors are used for precise distance measurement, down to the micrometer at diverse ranges.

Movement – Movement sensors create new possibilities for non-contact detection and the measurement of moving surfaces. The optical movement sensor is compact and designed to detect when surfaces are moving or not. It is ideal for both drive shaft and conveyor applications. The optical movement sensor combines movement sensor functionality with advanced surface scanning technology, to provide speed and length measurements in both x and y direction via incremental outputs.

Contact – Contact sensors are developed to detect the impact of parts as small as 0.3 g.

Magnetic Field – Magnetic field sensors facilitate the safe detection of high electronic current. A typical application would be monitoring pipeline grounding problems.

Radar – Radar sensors are used in different applications for non-contact detection of objects. This mode of operation allows for concealed mounting behind a protective wall, enabling the detection of any movement through the wall.  These radar sensors distinguish between approaching objects and objects moving away, up to a distance of 6 meters. The sensors can be adjusted to mask small objects in favor of large ones.

Ultrasonic – Ultrasonic sensors are used in automation tasks for distance measurement and as proximity switches. The sensors use sound/time measurement that ensure reliable detection, regardless of color. Transparent objects, liquids and powders can also be reliably detected. These sensors are insensitive to dirt, so they can be applied in environments where optical sensors would fail.

Internal Sensors – Smart PIG – Depending on the model, smart pigs detect cracks and weld defects through magnetic flux leakage or shear wave ultrasound, mechanically measure the roundness of the pipe to detect crushing, or measure pipe wall thickness and metal loss through compression wave ultrasound.



It is clear that IoT has become incredibly popular, and current trends show that it is the future. It simply helps with automation of various processes, making these systems quite useful for both regular consumers and businesses.

We are yet to see the full potential this technology carries, as the whole platform is becoming smarter through the fusion of all the aforementioned sensors. When you consider the fact that all of the measured data is collected and can be analyzed, it is obvious that IoT is going to become even smarter in the future.


Allerin. (2016). How can IoT ensure that Oil pipelines run smoothly? Retrieved on November 25, 2018 from,

Kite-Powell, J. (2016). Industrial IOT: These Ultra Sonic Sensors Give Sight to Sounds. Forbes Media LLC. Retrieved on November 25, 2018 from,

MEMS. (2018). What is memes? MEMSnet. MEMS-exchange. Retrieved on November 25, 2018 from,

Natural Resources Canada. (2018). Pipelines across Canada. Government of Canada. Retrieved on November 25, 2018 from,

PTC. (2018). How the IoT Helps Keep Oil and Gas Pipelines Safe. Retrieved on November 25, 2018 from,

Sharma, R. (2018). Top 15 Sensor Types Being Used in IoT. Finoit Technologies. Retrieved on November 25, 2018 from,

Photo credit: Luca Galuzzi. Section of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

Photo credit: Unknown. Sentinel Analytics.

Graphic Credit: IoT devices – sensors and actuators examples – source IoT infographic Postscapes and Harbor Research – CC Attribution license.

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless and digital communications technologies.

He is a Senior Executive with IBM Canada’s GTS Network Services Group. Over the past 13 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He was previously a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He serves as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has diplomas and certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology.