- Associated Press - Monday, July 6, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - It’s not just humans watching over the 800-mile trans-Alaska pipeline, making sure oil continues to pump across the state.

Alyeska Pipeline Services Company now employs a tiny robotic device that resembles Pixar movie robot WALL-E for pipe inspections, the Alaska Dispatch News reported (https://bit.ly/1ChMFJv).

Called a “crawler pig,” it has saved Alyeska tens of millions of dollars in the last year and helped prevent spills.

It is the third in a series of “pigging” devices that have evolved since the pipeline’s early days. The original pig was a large projectile called that slid through the pipe to scrape away corrosion-causing water or waxy buildup.

Later came the “smart pig,” which used magnetic and other forces to inspect the pipe and provided updates on the pipeline’s condition from the inside.

The latest iteration is the crawler, which patrols pipelines previously considered “unpiggable” — those smaller than the 48-inch main line but still critical to the operation. Some of them have never been inspected because doings so wasn’t possible without digging the pipe. That process increased the risk of accidents.

“Some infrastructure in Alaska is getting old and wasn’t designed in a way that it could be inspected as frequently as it needs to be,” said Lois Epstein, an engineer and the board president of public-interest group Pipeline Safety Trust.

She said the newest pig should help alleviate that problem.

A 2011 leak in an underground line at Pump Station 1 led federal regulators to require Alyeska to replace or remove hazardous liquid pipelines at four pump stations and a relief station that couldn’t be inspected with pigs.

“We originally expected to bring all of them above ground,” for inspection, a circumstance that could have pushed total costs into the hundreds of millions of dollars, said Alyeska spokeswoman Michelle Egan.

It was a curious employee Googled “pipeline inspection devices” and found the robots made by Russian company Diakont.

Although the machine’s track wheels and eye-like camera placement call WALL-E to mind, the robot’s creator says any resemble is purely coincidental.

The robot does have a name, though: RODIS, which stands for Remotely Operated Diagnostic Inspection System, said Diakont pipeline services director Brian Carlson.

Egan said RODIS has already found “several isolated corrosion pits” at Pump Station 9 near Delta Junction and saved the company at least $70 million.

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Information from: Alaska Dispatch News, https://www.adn.com


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