A small sphere no bigger than a golf ball but filled with sensors, the Piper is inserted at one end of an underground pipeline.
It flows along with whatever liquid the pipeline in carrying — crude oil, brine.
Acoustic sensors listen for possible leaks. Pressure, temperature, acceleration, rotation of the Piper are all measured and deposits clogging the pipeline can be identified. It can even create a "pressure profile," allowing companies to determine where best to tie in new lengths of pipe.
And by next month, the technology will be deployed, taking internal readings of 15 small pipelines across western North Dakota.
Pipers, developed by Calgary-based Ingu Solutions, is taking part in a North Dakota Industrial Commission research and development grant matching project called the Intelligent Pipeline Integrity Program, focused on advancing new pipeline leak prevention technologies.
Gov. Doug Burgum, setting a high bar, laid the challenge of zero oil and gas industry pipeline leaks. The iPIPE consortium was formed in response, said Brian Kalk, the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center's energy system's development director.
Members include Hess Corporation, Equinor, Goodnight Midstream, Oasis Midstream Partners, ONEOK, EERC and several technology providers.
Funding for the three-year program comes from a combination of $1.6 million from NDIC's Oil and Gas Research Program and $225,000 membership fees paid by the oil and gas companies.
"The technology developers provide money, too; they don't get a free ride," Kalk said of companies such as Ingu that were chosen to participate.
Kalk said the purpose of the program is to test the technologies, giving oil and gas companies another tool in their tool kit.
"We’re going to put it out in the field," he said.
The plan is to test a new technology each of the three years. If more oil and gas companies join the consortium, the program could be extended beyond three years, Kalk said.
Seven companies, including Ingu, applied for this first year.
Ingu was chosen as the first for its unique target market, small gathering pipelines that deliver liquids from the far flung well sites in western North Dakota. These small pipelines, less that 8 inches in diameter, are unregulated like the larger transmission lines and there are more than 300,000 miles of them across U.S. oil fields, Ingu CEO John van Pol said.
With a large chunk of those miles being in North Dakota, van Pol called the state "a sweet spot for our market."
Ingu is in the process of transitioning from an emerging technology into a commercially viable company, having participated in a number of pilot programs last year.
Other gathering line monitoring methods are tedious and expensive, van Pol said. Ingu maintains its technology will be easy to deploy. And because so few companies have focused on gathering lines, the company is essentially entering a "green field" market, void of major competition.
Ingu controls the expense of its product by charging for data analysis and not the Pipers themselves, van Pol said. The price varies based on the level of analysis needed.
Currently the Pipers, after being run through the pipe for as many as 24 hours, have to be shipped back to Ingu for data retrieval, a process which van Pol said the company is working on improving. The startup also is working on building its artificial intelligence capacity in order to speed the time of data analysis, with a goal of 72 hours.