A fixed-wing unmanned aircraft was used to inspect an energy pipeline route with a piloted chase plane following behind to ensure safety beyond the ground observers' sight line. The flight was a step toward making aerial inspections of energy pipelines safer and more economical. The test aircraft was equipped with a special sensor package to identify threats to pipeline integrity.

Ground crew members launch the unmanned aircraft system to patrol a pipeline right-of-way during testing. (American Aerospace Technologies Inc.)

The research is part of Pipeline Research Council International’s Right Of Way Automated Monitoring (RAM) Project, which is looking at innovative technologies to improve and automate pipeline monitoring in the United States and internationally. Energy pipelines are mainly buried underground. Damage may inadvertently occur during land clearing, construction, or farming work.

One of the objectives of the project is to enhance aerial surveillance of the right of way through unmanned aircraft and other techniques, with the ultimate goal being continuous, real-time detection and reporting of machinery threats to pipeline integrity.