Pipeline Monitoring : a calling for InSAR

Satellite radar seems nearly purpose built for monitoring pipelines.

How exactly do you monitor a snaking pipe that’s hundreds of miles long?

Narrowly stretching through countless miles carrying vital energy and water resources, our planet is circled in pipelines. Occasionally controversial, most of them serve out a vital duty of safely transporting otherwise challenging to move material across vast distances in utter silence through sparsely inhabited areas.

Operators are held to regulatory standards for the deformation of these pipeline areas. Monitoring them for geo hazards along tremendous corridors.

The typical regime includes a blend of LiDAR - a costly aerial observation technique, drones with photogrammetry, and the stand-by staffer in a truck with a notebook. Add up the costs of all of these techniques and even just verifying the right of way is clear of illegally built structures can be a real challenge. Not to mention the urban pipeline operators who have a tremendous impact on the daily life of tens of millions of people.

Tengiz Oil Field, Kazakhstan

Surface and subsurface pipeline deformation require different tools

InSAR works effectively like all radars in that it looks for a reflection, or echo, from which to derive information. Which is why you won’t see any scatter points (colourful dots) around the pipeline in the above image. That bare ground is not creating a perfectly coherent return echo throughout the massive stack of radar images we processed to determine the deformation of the surface pipeline - which is showing scatter points. This enables us to clearly observe the pipeline itself.

In a subsurface pipeline monitoring role we take on another approach. Deploying PSinSAR, the same technique in the image above, a blend of radar reflectors, and geo-hazard focus areas along the alignment of the pipeline we are able to cost effectively observe deformation in key areas from Sentinel 1 every 6 to 12 days depending on location. Something that would be economically impractical to do with other techniques.

Image Credit: Canadian Pipeline Association

Image Credit: Canadian Pipeline Association

Pipeline right of way monitoring

That nice cleared path along the top of a subsurface pipeline is key to ensuring the safety of the area and the regulatory compliance of the operator. The width and conditions of the right of way are often carefully defined by government authorities. DinSAR and coherence maps are great techniques to be used to ensure that the right of way is maintained. They are able to determine clearly when the path may have been interrupted by high vegetation, persistently parked vehicles, or structures. Again, all possible with the Sentinel 1 radar sensor and Ovela processing without costly traditional techniques.

Cost savings, studied

The European Association of Remote Sensing Companies compiled a fantastic report determining the financial benefits to Dutch pipeline operators in two regions to be in the millions of euros. The report is a fantastic first look at how these techniques can be applied.

Image Credit: EARSC costs in Millions of EUR

Image Credit: EARSC costs in Millions of EUR


The pipeline you don’t see is often the most helpful, and the most dangerous. It’s often right under our sidewalk.


There are still millions of homes which are heated with and cooking on natural gas. Billions who are using urban water supply systems. You don’t need to look far to see the most active calling for pipeline monitoring. It’s in the dozens of sinkholes swallowing cars in Toronto from leaking drinking water pipes. Or the occasional horror story of a firestorm sweeping a neighbourhood when a natural gas line bursts and ignites.

Far from the headlines is the more common disturbance of maintenance on gas fittings, replacement of valves and pipe sections - or water main failures with closed streets and thousands of gallons pouring into waste.

The simple correlation of an GIS system with a pipeline map to a deformation monitoring service, both of which Ovela provides, can enable a user to receive an alert on their phone of when a crisis may occur. Equally importantly, maintenance teams can then more accurately determine when to replace systems prior to a failure.


Ovela InSAR results for Baltimore, Maryland

The biggest obstacle

Awareness, that is the battle anyone who understands SAR is in. There is a technique that can make a tremendous impact on the every day life of all of us. Yet, it is the niche of the niche, with few knowing that it exists or the extent of usefulness that these systems present. Pipeline operators from those in urban settings to those in the long distance transport industry have much to gain, but it is the every day citizen who can benefit the most. As an industry, and as someone reading this blog we can do this… one user at a time, by collaborating and by learning. Thank you for being here along our side!

With coffee, all things are possible, even SAR becoming commonplace ; )

With coffee, all things are possible, even SAR becoming commonplace ; )