March 2015

Innovative thinkers

The Sniffers: Detection dogs
Steven McGinn / World Oil

While the oil and gas industry prides itself on the sensitivity of its field instruments, here is one case where a dog’s nose has trumped technology. Pipeline pressure losses, due to leaks or illegal tapping, can lead to significant loss of revenue for pipeline operators. Pressure losses are usually detected rapidly, but the leak’s precise location—in a remote area, generally—is often difficult to find.

In a case study for BP Georgia, a loss of pressure had been detected on a 2,000-km, high-pressure oil pipeline, but the precise location of the suspected illegal tap could not be found. Guards on horseback, with leak detection equipment, were inadequate, so Brussels-based The Sniffers, and its Leak Detection Services, were called in to check 200 km of pipeline in the area of Tbilisi, Georgia.

Two Belgian shepherds, and their handlers, checked the pipeline in the area of Tbilisi for illegal taps. Within just two weeks, the dogs found the leak. The operator sent its management team to the location, and excavation was started within hours.

In another case, Total France, operator of an 800-km olefin pipeline stretching from Marseille to Metz, had a line completely inspected in four months, by two dogs from The Sniffers.

“The diversity of landscapes [in France] we had to cross was amazing: mountains as high as 1,200 m, rivers, paddocks with bulls, barbed wire fences, suburban areas, private properties, highways, railways,” said the firm.

While the practice of using dogs to detect odors is by no means new, canine-led inspection of pipelines and gas leaks is a unique approach to leak recognition, offering out-of-the-box thinking to conventional, equipment-based detection methods. In areas with difficult accessibility, using high-scale equipment can be impossible, very difficult, or very slow, but dogs can be reliable in those circumstances, and they work fast in difficult terrain.

A canine’s odor detection mechanism is unique, with large folds of mucous membranes inside its nose, making the olfactory system far more effective than humans.

Canine nasal cavities are lined with scent receptor cells—more than 200 million—connecting to the nerves in the olfactory lobe of the dog’s brain. By comparison, humans only have around 4 million scent receptors.

Dogs can detect scents and odors in the parts-per-billion range, whereas most professional-grade equipment can only measure in parts per million. Highly sensitive equipment is available, but it’s just not as flexible, and capable, as a dog, according to The Sniffers.

Detection dogs are trained to detect levels far lower than the parts-per-million threshold. “All dogs are trained in-house,” the company said in an interview. “After each training discipline there is an exam; when they pass this exam, the dogs will move on to the next step. This training process applies for the dog handlers, as well.”

The dogs are trained to alert the handler, if a leak is found, by marking the spot, and sitting down. “It is imperative that the handler has an excellent understanding of the dog,” said a spokesperson. “In 20 years working with dogs, we have never had any health problems for our dogs.” Unique to the Sniffers’ dogs is their employment certification, by Germany-based TÜV technical inspectors, which validates, via third party, training and safety of both dog and handler.

Hazards are ever-present in the oil field, and both loss of pressure and theft of product can cost companies severely, so operators must find an economic, cost-saving solution. Safe to say, the answer to proper detection could be found right under a dog’s nose.

Perhaps by studying the unique, powerful anatomy of the canine, the industry can develop smarter detection processes, and build equipment superior to a dog. But then again, one can never replace man’s best friend. wo-box_blue.gif

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Steven McGinn
World Oil
Steven McGinn
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