From battlefield to backyard

Locating natural gas pipelines under American soil could become much easier thanks to a US Department of Energy-sponsored spin-off of an advanced landmine detection system being developed for the military.

Pinpointing the precise location of natural gas pipelines beneath America’s streets and backyards could become much easier thanks to a US Department of Energy-sponsored spin-off of an advanced landmine detection system being developed for the military.

At a field test earlier this year, CyTerra Corporation demonstrated a new, lightweight, handheld detector that can pinpoint the exact location of both metallic and plastic underground pipes at depths of up to 10 feet deep.

CyTerra, headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts developed the detector with funding from the Department of Energy’s natural gas research program. Dubbed LULU (Low-Cost Utility Location Unit) the technology is an adaptation of the company’s Hand-Held Stand-Off Mine Detection System, which is being developed to assist the US Army locate anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.

The new detector is expected to be especially beneficial in preventing ‘third party’ damage. While not common, third party damage occurs when construction or excavation crews inadvertently strike underground utility lines.

Last year, according to the federal Office of Pipeline Safety, third party damage caused nine fatalities, 45 injuries, and an estimated $23 million in damage costs. It is by far the most dangerous and costly type of accident caused by the inability to detect gas pipes, especially older pipes that may not be correctly marked on the surface.

Like its military version, the LULU technology relies on ground penetrating radar. To make it suitable for pipeline detection, Cyterra engineers altered the frequency band and antenna size of the system to increase the depth detection range from shallow mine depths of inches up to10 feet for pipeline detection. When the radar passes over a buried pipeline, signal-processing techniques provide real-time output by producing a series of beeps to alert an operator.

A key advantage of the technology is its capability to discriminate between metal and plastic pipes. Current commercial detection methods rely on magnetic devices and cannot detect plastic pipelines. Increasingly, newer gas distribution pipes are being constructed of plastic and ceramic materials.

The Gas Technology Institute estimates that 72 percent of all 3-inch-diameter natural gas distribution pipes in the US are plastic. These pipes are commonly used as the service lines that deliver natural gas from the gas main to the meters of homes and businesses.

‘We’re very anxious for CyTerra to commercialise this,’ commented Rodney Anderson at the Energy Department’s Stategic Centre for Natural Gas.