Protecting Assets: AIS-Based Vessel Tracking

Posted by Jason Tieman


***This article originally appeared in Port Technology International, Navis World Edition #65

Today, a marine pipeline incident costs an average of at least US$1 million to repair, excluding reputational damage and the incalculable costs of injury or death, rendering infrastructure protection increasingly important. Numerous oil and gas companies are addressing the challenge of marine pipeline protection through policies and procedures that can now be augmented by the use of Automatic Identification System (AIS)-based vessel-tracking tools. These tools enable companies to proactively monitor and control encroachment on marine pipelines, helping to pre-empt problems before they occur. As organizations deploy these tools for pipeline protection, they are also extending their use to include monitoring and preventing encroachment and damage to a broader range of infrastructure, including subsea cable and other remote un-manned assets.

A Critical Priority

Ever since drilling began in 1859 at the first commercial oil well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, pipelines have played an increasingly important role in petroleum as well as other industries. America's pipeline network continues to meet the growing need for a safe, reliable, efficient and economical means of transporting oil and other products from far-away supply centers.

The challenges relating to the protection of pipeline infrastructure are well documented. During the past 20 years, marine pipeline and vessel interactions have resulted in $120 million in pipeline damages (not counting the cost of lost or damaged vessels), more than 100,000 barrels of product released into the environment, 29 fatalities, and 35 injuries.

To protect the people and the environment from these threats, US Congress created the Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) in 1968 to oversee and implement pipeline safety regulations. Today, this function is housed in the Department of Transportation (DOT) under the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Companies must adhere to PHMSA mandates including the 49 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 192 relating to the transportation of natural and other gas by pipeline, and Part 195 which relates to the transportation of hazardous liquids by pipeline.


The biggest threats to marine pipeline infrastructure include vessel anchors, spud barges and collisions of vessels with pipelines in shallow water. The changing coastal conditions due to erosion and subsidence are also increasing the risk factor in many areas, even with increased regulation and expanded pipeline remediation programs implemented by operators. Traffic volume can also be a factor, as in the Gulf of Mexico, where there are more than 63,000 miles of pipelines. This area is experiencing an unprecedented surge of traffic including vessels associated with transportation of new crude oil shipments arriving from new finds in the Dakotas, West Texas, Mexico and other locations, as well as vessel activities related to decommissioning of older offshore platforms and facilities. Conditions such as these combine to increase the risk that a vessel will strike an underwater pipeline infrastructure.

Oil companies have addressed pipeline protection with policies and procedures that have varied in their effectiveness. In 2013, a number of companies began piloting a new element in their pipeline protecting program: an AIS-based vessel-alerting program that provides another layer of defense.

Solving the Problem

There are many shortcomings regarding traditional pipeline protection methods. Firstly, surveillance fly-overs are generally conducted only once or twice a week. This is not frequent enough to observe the majority of in-progress threats to pipeline infrastructure and, because there are no markers identifying underwater pipelines, there is no way for pilots to precisely identify infrastructure location and/or whether nearby vessels are encroaching and posing the threat of a strike. All a fly-over program can do is identify problems after they have occurred, when there is visible evidence in the form of an oil slick or bubbles. Not only does this preclude the opportunity to prevent a strike, it also makes it difficult to identify a culprit as the responsible vessel might be nowhere near the incident once it has been realized.

Even inspection and surveillance programs using vessels on the waterway suffer from the inability to be where they need to be, when they need to be (when a pipeline strike is imminent). For this reason, pipeline companies rely on public participation in the surveillance process through the 811 telephone notification service, which is aimed at homeowners and professional excavators who are instructed to 'call before you dig' in order to avoid injury, underground infrastructure damage, and utility service disruptions. It is also used to report pipeline threats in inland and near-shore marine areas. The GulfSafe One Call notification system, which was instituted following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, provides a greater focus on the offshore infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida.

As helpful as self-reporting systems can be, they still can't provide the necessary real-time, round-the-clock visibility across the entire pipeline infrastructure. Even when a work area has been declared clear of pipelines, multiple supporting vessel traffic and activity can easily threaten nearby pipelines that were not part of the original call. The solution to this gap in information and monitoring capability is to continuously monitor all vessels in every zone of interest. This is an ideal application for AIS-based technology.

Pipeline and Asset Protection

 The first AIS-based vessel-tracking service to be used for the above purposes is PortVision, which is already deployed by all major oil companies and widely used for applications including managing barge and ship movements across their terminals, and investigating incidents using the service's historical playback and reporting capabilities. The service is also regularly used for analysis of traffic trends, risk profiles, and asset-protection requirements, as well as claims/demurrage validation. PortVision's AIS network processes over 50 million real-time vessel position reports each day, and the company maintains a data warehouse of over 40 billion arrival, departure, and individual vessel movements dating back to 2006.

The PortVision service was first piloted for pipeline encroachment monitoring as part of an AIS-based vessel alerting program managed by the Coastal and Marine Operators (CAMO) group, whose goal is to transmit a message directly to a vessel's onboard AIS unit alerting them if they appear to maneuver in a way that could threaten a pipeline. The project is a joint project with PortVision and funded through a PHMSA grant issued to Port Fourchon in an effort to take proactive measures to prevent pipeline strikes. In August 2014, PortVision received an FCC license to transmit AIS safety messages directly to vessels that appear to be encroaching on fixed asset infrastructure such as subsea pipelines. The vessel will receive an alert in the wheelhouse via and AIS unit or an electronic charting system that supports the display of AIS messages.

Best Deployment Practices

To implement vessel-tracking for pipeline encroachment monitoring, the first step is to incorporate all pipeline maps into a vessel-tracking tool, and to develop all required alerting parameters and criteria. These include parameters related to vessel speed in or near zones of interest and the duration of time spent there, each of which can be an indicator of a problem or a threatening situation that is worth scrutinizing.

Early tool deployments have quickly delivered positive results. For instance, within the first few days of pilot testing with a large oil company, the PortVision service transmitted an alert regarding a vessel in a zone of interest that looked suspicious. A field inspector was immediately sent to further investigate the activity and confirmed that the vessel was stationary within a pipeline corridor. The inspector notified the field supervision team of the unauthorized encroachment, and the company's Control Center was also notified with a request for the monitoring system to confirm the pipeline was operating within normal operating limits. The Pipeline Operations Team was instructed to contact the vessel, but was unsuccessful, so the field inspector then contacted the vessel owner who provided the vessel captain's personal phone number. The captain was contacted and asked to stop until further notice due to his close proximity to the pipeline. Once confirmation was received that the vessel was grounded, notifications were made to all company stake holders. Information was therefore reviewed and it was determined that the vessel should wait and relocate at high tide so as not to be a threat to the pipeline.

In some cases, a company will be able to determine through data mining and other confirmation that certain threat risk levels are acceptable, and PortVision notification parameters can be modified, accordingly. Organizations also have the option to use historical data to further analyze the notification parameters that will be most effective for monitoring and managing pipeline threats. The historical data can also identify what segments of pipelines experience higher traffic volumes as well as provide insight into specific vessels and fleets that appear to regularly operate near assets to assist in targeting awareness and prevention efforts.

Extending Monitoring

In addition to pipeline protection, oil companies are also extending the use of AIS-based tools to include monitoring and preventing encroachment and damage to a broader range of infrastructure including unmanned platforms, subsea cables and other sensitive infrastructure. Meanwhile, the need for pipeline safety alone continues to grow in importance for oil companies who have hundreds of vessels traversing their pipeline infrastructure each day. Their efforts can now be augmented with AIS-based vessel tracking tools that provide real-time visibility in all areas where encroachment could lead to a pipeline strike, an automated alerting system when a strike may be imminent, and a collaborative platform for assessing risk. determining next steps and coordinating action.

PortVision 360 AIS Vessel Tracking

Posted on Apr 14, 2016, 6:08:00 AM

Topics: Blog, AIS, Pipeline, Vessel Tracking