Mini-Robots, Smart Pigs and Lasers Lead PG&E’s Gas Safety Innovations

More than 30 innovative gas safety tools were tested by Pacific Gas & Electric during 2014.
Published: Wed 28 Jan 2015

Robots and other automated technologies are increasingly offering potential in a range of applications from network monitoring to infrastructure deployment. [Engerati-Robots Coming To Deploy Microgrids]

With lengthy and frequently remote pipelines potentially subject to leakage, the gas industry is a prime potential user of such technologies. To this end during 2014 Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E) tested more than 30 next generation gas safety tools. These, according to a company statement, are “helping transform utilities into more predictive and proactive operators and aid in providing detailed inspections, often in less time with greater accuracy and precision than traditional methods.”

Some of these technologies are as follows.


  • In early 2014, PG&E launched a customized "smart-pig" that travels inside transmission pipelines and captures detailed information about the inside of the pipe without any interruption to gas service. Sumeet Singh, PG&E’s vice president of assets and risk management in gas operations, likens what a smart pig does for a pipeline to what an MRI does for a human. Says Singh: “It identifies if there is any damage to the line, whether it’s a dent, whether it’s metal loss, and it identifies the precise location so we can go out and make the appropriate remediation.”

The smart pig was developed by PG&E and the German company 3P Service. The device that was tested travels at a rate of 12 miles over three hours, using the gas in the pipeline to make it travel, and can navigate tight bends and turn in pipelines with 30- to 36-inch diameters.


Later in the year, the company tested a miniature robot, which is aimed to allow visual inspection of natural gas pipelines for signs of corrosion without the need for costly construction digs. In many locations, such as where underground pipelines run below railroad tracks or major freeways, pipeline casings are added as an additional protective layer around the gas pipeline to help insulate it from harm. The tethered mini-robot, which is about the size of a toy car and rolls on tiny magnetic wheels, is designed to travel down through tight, rounded vents to the space between the pipe and casing to record the condition of each covered segment with high-definition cameras.

The device was developed by NYSEARCH and the robotic tool vendor, Honeybee Robotics. Commercial availability is expected during 2015.

3D mapping for pipeline surface monitoring

The 3D Toolbox is a specialized tool for detecting dents, cracks or corrosion on the outer surface of pipelines.

First developed for the dental industry, the 3D Toolbox is as easy to use as a digital camera and with a click, it captures a three dimensional image and provides measurements to give real-time information about the condition of pipeline surfaces.

“The benefits of the tool are that it provides traceable, repeatable measurements,” says Gerry Bong, a PG&E R&D and Innovation gas engineer. “It’s simple to use and it speeds up the pipe assessment process, which could take hours or days before.”

Other organizations involved in the development of the 3D Toolbox include the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI).

Gas leak detection monitoring

  • In collaboration with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, PG&E has adapted and tested laser-based technology that was originally designed for the Mars Rover to find methane on Mars, in order to locate natural gas leaks on Earth more effectively than traditional methods.

The tool, which is about 1,000 times more sensitive than traditional tools, guides PG&E crews using a tablet interface to identify possible leak locations,

The tool is expected to be ready for use during 2015, and will be a part of PG&E’s comprehensive suite of gas-leak detection technology, which includes leak patrols by foot, by air in helicopters, by car with super-sensitive, gas sniffing vehicles, and by boat over submerged pipelines.

"Working alongside some of the best scientific minds in the world, we're developing new predictive capabilities about natural gas operations," said Singh. "We've been able to make advancements in advancing natural gas pipeline safety through innovation and we are committed to not only continuing to enhance the safety of our system, but also sharing such solutions across the industry."