Might we be able to perform pipeline inspections from the inside and therefore plan and execute maintenance and replacement activities based on the actual situation, rather than on assumptions and general models? This is one of the practical conclusions the Phoenix project is hoping to reach. Headed by Eindhoven University of Technology, this project is currently being run by several European universities and consultancy and engineering firm Antea Group.
The scientific research has a broad scope: how can we solve issues relating to inaccessible environments using successive reincarnations of virtual and physical swarms of ‘agents’? “It’s a question of the chicken and the egg,” explains Professor Peter Baltus, leader of the Phoenix project. “We want to optimize sensors so they can be used in inaccessible environments. But we actually need these unknown environments in order to develop the sensors. Creating new types of sensor and new models of the unknown environments will allow us to solve both of these problems at once.”
In an initial trial in a children’s swimming pool at Eindhoven University of Technology, the agents were plastic balls around the size of a ping-pong ball, filled with microsensors. Known as motes, each of these balls has its own mission to gather specific information and together, they give an overall picture. In the long term, it should be possible for a swarm of these motes, or ‘inspectors’, to detect issues such as heat leakages in heating grids or corrosion in water pipes from the inside. But we are still far from achieving this, and project leader Peter Baltus warns that it may never happen. However, the international team of scientists working on the project has high hopes.
The fact that the practical side of the research is currently focused on underground pipes is down to the experience and interests of the parties involved. The team could just as easily have looked at the ‘inaccessible environments’ of space travel or nuclear energy. “We initially did not know what we wanted to solve,” explains Peter Baltus. “When Antea Group came on board the project, they had the idea of looking at fluid environments with unknown fluids and very narrow passages, which we eventually went for.”
“The pipeline network in the Netherlands is old and there is a lot that needs replacing,” says Léon Verhoeven, Environment & Safety Business Line Director at Antea Group, “but the problem is, we do not actually know exactly how much. Neither can we clearly see which material has been used where. Basically, we do not know the exact details of the situation. Our aim is to develop an approach that will allow us to predict what is needed where and at what moment, and therefore increase cost-efficiency. A key question is whether replacement can be postponed. We have noticed that utility companies are rather nervous in anticipating the scope of replacement work.” As well as the social task, the project also helps Antea Group to offer its employees opportunities for their further development. “We want to be a market leader when it comes to using technology and data in our services,” explains Léon Verhoeven. “People with a highly scientific background should be able to do well at our company. Innovative projects like this help us create the required conditions.”
Léon also expects the project to be able to play a part in the energy transition. “Inspections performed from the inside could help to determine whether gas pipelines are suitable for other applications. No such case studies have yet been commissioned, but parties in the industry have expressed their interest. Inspection of an extinguishing water pipeline, for instance, can mean shutting down the system. This involves safety risks and costs that could otherwise be avoided. And if I let my imagination really run wild, I would say that you could continuously monitor the enormous transport pipelines running through Europe to predict and prevent leakages and losses.”
Antea Group’s involvement in the project is not limited to glimpses of applications that could be possible in the somewhat distant future. The engineering firm is also providing the practical insights needed for a full understanding of the project’s physical aspects. “Certainly at this stage we need to assume that we can insert the ‘inspectors’ into a pipeline system and then remove them again,” says Peter Baltus. “We had not initially considered this, from an electronics perspective. Antea Group helps keep us grounded. For instance, what do you do if one of the motes doesn’t come back? In the beginning, we did not even realize that this was something we needed to worry about. The interplay between science and practice helps ensure we determine all the details of our objectives. With a project like this that costs millions, you cannot afford to have it end up unusable because you’ve missed something.”
The engineering firm is also providing the practical insights needed for a full understanding of the project’s physical aspects.
“Antea Group’s broad perspective gives the project a certain amount of oomph,” explains Léon Verhoeven. “We ask different questions, which makes the project more dynamic.” Peter Baltus has noticed that joint development like this is happening more and more often. “If you want to speed up technical developments, it’s okay to skip a few steps. Universities traditionally work together with technical companies, so it takes a long time for solutions to reach market players such as Antea Group. When they finally get there, it’s often too late.”
Virtual and physical evolution
Opting for underground pipelines makes it relatively simple to run practical trials. This enables uninterrupted learning and development based on subsequent generations of virtual and physical ‘inspectors’. Given the ambition of developing motes that be can be used in various different applications, the current ping-pong ball format will need to be cut back to an average of seven millimeters. The major challenge with a mote that small is the amount of energy that can be supplied. “We probably will not be able to equip the motes with a camera,” explains Peter Baltus. “In order to do this, you need not only visibility, but also light, and that would require too much energy. The communication also uses energy, and we want to limit this consumption as much as possible.”
“We are currently looking to use temperature and ultrasound measurements, which will help us gather information on things like acceleration, position and rotation, and possibly also pressure differences in the future.” We want the motes to evolve within the constraints of weight and energy to become the motes that will be the most useful to us. This process is similar to that of a plant breeder who cross-breeds varieties in order to produce the best characteristics. Our ‘breeding process’ consists of two loops, the first of which is physical. This loop is inherently slow, because it sometimes takes the motes two weeks to complete their journey through the pipeline system. The second loop is a fully simulated one and is much faster. After all, it only requires memory capacity and computing power. Constant development of virtual generations eventually reaches its saturation point. That’s when you need to do another physical experiment, before you can continue virtually.”
“Our ambition of creating seven-millimeter-motes is rather aggressive,” continues Peter Baltus. “We are aiming for as many applications as possible, but the breeding process will show which critical choices are needed. We do not yet know how this will turn out, as it has never been done before. My industrial experience tells me it really must be possible.”
The swimming pool trial is still the Phoenix project’s first stage. “The second stage involves investigating issues relating to problematic pipelines,” explains Léon Verhoeven. “We will do this together with our partners to make sure we ask the right questions. Actually putting what we have developed into practice is only part of stage three, and that’s a long way off yet. We need to investigate many different aspects during the second stage. The more prerequisites we can add as a result, the more multifunctional the motes will be. Various different pipeline managers have already expressed their interest. Actually, the only one we’re still missing is a water treatment company.”
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Prof. Dr. Ir. Peter Baltus (right) is head of the ‘Mixed-signal Microelectronics’ Electrical Engineering group at Eindhoven University of Technology. He has been affiliated with the university since 2007 and previously spent over two decades working for Philips and NXP (Philips semiconductors).
Ing. Léon Verhoeven (left) is Environment & Safety Business Line Director at Antea Group. Having studied highway and hydraulic engineering at an institute of technology in ‘s Hertogenbosch, he joined Antea Group in 1991. Pipeline consultancy is part of Antea Group’s environmental activities.
Phoenix project approach