MAAP conducts UAS test flight for pipeline inspection

By Patrick C. Miller | March 26, 2015

A fixed-wing unmanned aerial system (UAS) accompanied by a piloted chase helicopter conducted an 11-mile test flight last week over a pipeline in a rural area near Fork Union, Virginia.

The Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) said the flight—which lasted about 90 minutes—was the first step in using UAS to make energy pipeline inspection safer and more economical. The mission was overseen by MAAP and Virginia Tech University with the support of the Pipeline Research Council International.

"This is important because it represents one of the first chase plane flights using a fixed-wing unmanned aircraft system for infrastructure inspections," said Rose Mooney, MAAP executive director.

The RS-16 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and its pilot were provided by American Aerospace Technologies Inc. (AATI), a Pennsylvania-based company that develops industrial UAS. The RS-16 can be equipped with a special sensor package to identify threats to pipeline integrity.

For safety purposes, a piloted chase helicopter followed the UAS as it flew over the right-of-way of a pipeline owned by the Colonial Pipeline Co.

"Aerial inspection of energy pipelines is federally required and typically performed using manned aircraft flying at low altitudes," said David Yoel, AATI CEO. "If we validate unmanned aircraft technologies, we can reduce risks to pilots and the public, and more efficiently protect the country's critical infrastructure."

The research is part of Pipeline Research Council International's Right Of Way Automated Monitoring (RAM) Project, which studies innovative technologies to improve and automate pipeline monitoring in the U.S. and internationally. Energy pipelines are usually buried underground, but can be accidentally damaged during land-clearing, construction or farming operations.

An objective of the council’s RAM project is to enhance aerial surveillance of the right-of-way with UAS and other techniques. The organization’s goal is continuous, real-time detection and reporting of machinery threats to pipeline integrity.

Since 2008, Yoel has been using UAS technology to inspect infrastructure and hopes that the Federal Aviation Administration will allow it to be employed in remote and rural areas by 2017.

"We need to do more work and additional testing to make sure we can deliver this service,” he said. “I believe it is possible to improve safety and efficiency above today's levels."

The RS-16 UAS has a wingspan of nearly 13 feet, a 25-pound payload capacity and is capable of flying more than 12 hours before refueling.  During future flight tests, the aircraft will be equipped with mapping capabilities and a sophisticated sensor package.

Through MAAP, Virginia Tech and its academic partners Rutgers University and the University of Maryland, operates one of six FAA-approved unmanned aircraft testing programs in the nation.


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