IoT-based monitoring sensors on pipelines, trucks, rail cars and barges make it possible to track the health and location of oil and gas conveyances.
Few incidents have so dramatically and terrifyingly confirmed the need for meticulous monitoring of the transportation of volatile fuels than the devastating 2010 gas explosion in San Bruno, California.
The rupture and explosion of a Pacific Gas & Electric 30-inch natural gas pipeline left a path of destruction that took the lives of eight people and destroyed or rendered uninhabitable 38 homes in San Bruno’s Crestmoor neighborhood. Any instrumentation that might have been in place failed to detected the flaws in the pipeline, and controls were so inadequate that it took more than an hour for emergency personnel to shut down the flow of gas that fed the inferno.
During the California Public Utilities Commission’s ensuing investigation, it was revealed that PG&E not only failed to have appropriate detection equipment in place, but the utility also was negligent in regard to periodic testing of its transmission lines.
Sensors Failed to Detect a Problem
The San Bruno incident actually didn’t reflect a lack of transmission and transportation sensors and systems, but rather it showed how a fairly mundane occurrence — a power loss — could cripple a sensor-based system.
A detailed report published by National Public Radio station KQED as part of its California Report programming provided details about the San Bruno explosion.
The report notes that an electrical outage and a transmission terminal made the regulatory system go haywire, sending the gas pressure in the pipeline up to dangerous levels. But, the report continues, sensors were also disabled as a result of the outage, so technicians couldn’t see how high the pressure was building.
IoT-Based Monitoring of Transporation Greatly Improved
While the San Bruno explosion occurred just a decade ago, today’s state-of-the-art transportation and transmission systems are far more sophisticated, equipped with battery backup and other failover systems that ensure that they will remain operative at perhaps the most critical moments. These IoT-based monitoring networks are also designed to track the movements of gas and oil through a variety of transportation and transmission elements.
That level of sophistication is, in fact, required as gas and oil distribution systems in the United States are vast and complex.
In a 2018 paper published by the American Geosciences Institute (, authors Edith Allison and Ben Mandler note that there are millions of miles of oil and gas pipeline in the U.S. In addition to the network of pipelines, oil and gas is also transported by approximately 100,000 trucks and thousands of railroad tank cars.
All of those means of conveyance need to be outfitted with sensors that can detect the volume of gas or oil being moved and its location as well as the health and safety of the pipes or vehicles that are carrying the products.