An enormous amount of time, energy, and resources are devoted to the maintenance of ROWs. Unfortunately, all of this effort and money can be wasted through improper management. Because of this, it is essential that right-of-way management teams have all the information they need to be successful.
Why is continuous monitoring indispensable to a ROW management plan? Continuous monitoring gives companies the ability to easily track the progress of the project, manage vegetation growth, detect hazards, keep the environment safe, and manage stormwater runoff. Let’s look at why this is important.
Tracking the Project’s Progress
A ROW covers hundreds of miles and the projects they are based around can often take years to complete. These projects must adhere to proposed budgets and timelines. It’s crucial for right-of-way management teams to accurately track the progress of their project, so they know whether they’re on schedule or they need to make changes.
For example, an oil and gas pipeline project uses its ROW to build, operate, inspect and maintain its pipelines. This makes the right-of-way a critical component of laying the pipeline in place as running it is not feasible or even safe if the foundations for the right-of-way are not adequately prepared.
Managing Vegetation Growth
Once the right-of-way is in place, it can be encroached upon by natural vegetation. Managing this vegetation growth is crucial or serious problems can occur.
For example, the EPA found that overgrown trees were the cause of the massive blackouts on August 14, 2003, in both the United States and Canada. These blackouts affected over 50 million people and cost the American economy $7-$10 billion. This entire situation could have been avoided if the trees were simply inspected, cut back or taken down where appropriate.
Keeping the Environment Safe
Aerial imagery and analysis support detailed reporting required to stay in compliance.
Critical habitat compliance is an integral part of any right-of-way management plan. This helps to keep endangered species from peril and strengthens the local environment around the ROW. It also helps people comply with the FWS, and any other state and local government agencies regulating local wildlife safety.
Continuous monitoring can help the management team immediately identify and rectify any intrusion into nearby endangered species habitats. This keeps wildlife safe from harm and the company safe from litigation.
Managing Stormwater Runoff
Mismanaged stormwater runoff can cause many problems for both the infrastructure found within the rights-of-way as well as the areas surrounding it. Stormwater can pollute local waterways and can cause flooding which can damage the right-of-way, the project found within, as well as the local community.
These floods can become safety concerns and can even open up the right-of-way management team to legal issues. Therefore, many state and federal regulators have strict enforcement procedures managing stormwater runoff.
Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, for example, asks sites for their specific plans to deal with stormwater runoff. Once these plans are in place, the right-of-way management company must work within these parameters. This is not possible without continuous monitoring of the area.
Other hazards may pose an even greater risk to the ROW. For example, slope degradation can occur which will eventually lead to landslips. According to Access Science, “every year, landslides claim thousands of lives and cause considerable economic damage to buildings, roads, and other infrastructure around the world.”
Landslides can form as a result of human interference as well as natural causes like rainfall and snowmelt. Unstable slope conditions can occur overnight which often makes them difficult to detect before they become a problem.
Continuous monitoring helps reduce this issue as problems can be detected as they form. Once at-risk slopes are discovered, they can be repaired or modified to prevent a landslip event.
This process of continuous monitoring for landslides doesn’t have to be labor-intensive. Hazard detection software can be used to predict where issues are most likely to occur. This software can detect slope grade changes, inspect soils, and predict landslides long before they occur.
How to Continuously Monitor a ROW
Because of how important it is to monitor a right-of-way, you may be wondering how continuous monitoring is accomplished. There are two ways that you can do this. The first is ground-based monitoring systems and the second is aerial monitoring.
Ground-based monitoring is done with trucks, ATVs, and people. Aerial monitoring can be done with planes, helicopters, UAVs, and even satellites.
Ground-Based Monitoring Vs. Aerial Monitoring
In years past, inspectors would have to inspect everything from the ground or from aircraft such as planes and helicopters. Aerial monitoring was expensive but still better than ground monitoring. This was because some areas of a ROW could be challenging to access, and many rights-of-way are hundreds of miles long making them hard to continuously manage without an extensive inspection team.
Aerial monitoring enabled inspectors to cover hundreds of miles in a single day and gave them easy access to areas otherwise difficult to reach. Unfortunately, this was expensive, and still required people to fly the planes and inspectors to sit inside the aircraft.
Today it relies more on technology and airborne vehicles equipped with LiDAR and photogrammetry equipment to make monitoring activities much less labor-intensive. These technologies, combined with advanced prediction and monitoring software, make it efficient and accurate.
Planting vegetation is one of the many ways to mitigate the movement of earth on pipelines.
What Is the Best Type of Aerial Monitoring System
As discussed earlier, there are a few different aerial monitoring systems that can be used to monitor a right-of-way. Each system has advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll discuss in the rest of this section.
Current aerial monitoring systems include:
Helicopter and Airplane monitoring. It’s expensive, often requiring large amounts of fuel. Monitoring this way can also be inconvenient for local residents and poses higher risks. For example, flying large aircraft near residential areas increases the likelihood of crashing.
On the other hand, airplanes and helicopters can carry heavy monitoring equipment as well as people. This means the instant an issue is detected, people can be dropped off at the site to physically inspect the area.
Satellite monitoring is excellent for covering large areas as it can watch over all of these areas at one time. It also excels in monitoring areas when high wind conditions make this impossible by aircraft.
The drawback to this technology is that it’s costly and can only provide a bird’s eye view of the ROW. This means that hazards such as weak slopes that are located under dense vegetation may never be seen by the satellite.
UAV monitoring, on the other hand, is extremely flexible and can often inspect areas that even small planes and helicopters cannot. It is also a much more cost-effective solution than satellites, airplanes, and helicopters. A multitude of UAVs can be used to monitor large swaths of a ROW for a fraction of what it would cost to monitor these areas with just one plane or one helicopter.
These advantages make UAVs the most efficient and effective type of continuous monitoring a right-of-way can employ. As UAV and detection software technology continues to improve this will become even more evident.
How Are UAVs Used to Monitor ROWs
To demonstrate how UAVs are used to monitor ROWs, we’ll talk about the most critical component of monitoring a right-of-way; the detection and prevention of landslides. Landslides pose a significant safety risk to the people and infrastructure working inside a right-of-way. For this reason, it is vitally important that they are detected before they are triggered.
A landslide occurs when a slope becomes unstable. Heavy rains, snow melts, and even human intervention can cause this instability. Fortunately, this instability can often be seen before it results in a real landslide.
UAVs can detect this instability as it happens by first creating 3D maps of the right-of-way and surrounding areas. Once these maps are created, the UAV will continue to create new maps with each flight. Early detection software can compare these maps to look for any differences.
Upon identifying a potential problem area, a UAV can be sent to take a closer look. It can use photogrammetry to take pictures that human inspectors can examine. This helps speed up the detection process and aids in keeping human inspectors out of harm’s way. It also helps to inform slope repair crews of the dangers and challenges they’ll face during the repair before entering the affected area.
With today’s technology, all parts of a right-of-way can be monitored continuously. There are many efficient and cost-effective solutions to meet almost any management plan’s budget constraints. Continuous monitoring should, therefore, be a part of every right-of-way management plan. It is the responsible thing to do.
Since 2016, SolSpec has helped identify possible landslide areas near pipelines. Our company is helping maintain safe pipeline rights-of-way using the latest in landslide prediction models and software.