An innovative solution to pipeline security

The success of the US-financed effort to quickly rebuild Iraq is linked with that country's capability to deliver crude oil to international markets. As far back as August 2003, the then head of the Coalition Provision Authority, Paul Bremer, stated that sabotage attacks against the oil pipelines were costing Iraq millions of dollars a day in lost revenue and were also holding up the reconstruction of the country.

There has been no shortage of efforts to improve security for the pipelines and oil infrastructure. However, the growing level of attacks against the pipelines and associated infrastructure, carried out by terrorists and smugglers, has not only continued but has resulted in even more serious reductions in oil production. A series of attacks on pipelines in Iraq's southern export terminals in early July 2004 cut the level of exports to less than a million barrels per day, according to an official of the state-run Southern Oil Company.

Providing this protection is a very complicated task due to the vulnerability to sabotage of the easily accessible infrastructure along about 650km of pipeline, most of it unmonitored as it threads its way through vast stretches of empty desert. It is not feasible to have guards watching every metre of this massive structure and, despite the best efforts of US military personnel working alongside an expatriate-managed Iraqi guard force, there are still almost daily attacks on the pipeline or its infrastructure.

Simply adding more guards is not the solution. Rather, it is clear, as a recent Brookings Institution report pointed out, that more sophisticated surveillance systems are needed to act as a force multiplier for the limited security forces.

Traditional surveillance systems are not suited to the unique combination of isolated distances and well armed hostile forces that threaten the Iraqi pipeline. Even if a traditional surveillance system successfully reported an attack — and even assuming a monitoring location were able to actually observe the hit-and-run attack once it began — the damage would already have been done. Also, unless the attack took place within a very short distance from a guard post and protective personnel were able to respond quickly and reach the site within a few minutes, by the time the security forces reached the site of the attack the hostile forces would already have disappeared, able to attack again the next day. In short, existing surveillance systems cannot protect the pipeline.

The most promising solution to protect the pipeline seems to combine ancient and modern technologies: Crucial elements of such a system would involve the following:

  • surveillance cameras equipped with scene-change detection capabilities that trigger an alarm and automatically record when triggered by motion in the field of view;
  • audio and vibration sensors;
  • solar panels to provide power for the system and charge batteries for operations at night and in inclement weather;
  • transmitters to send surveillance data directly via a satellite network to monitoring sites; and
  • an earth covering of the exposed pipeline.
  • This final element is essential, although it may seem simplistic. An covering of earth will force any attackers to dig their way through several metres before reaching their target, imposing delays which will give security forces precious time to respond to attacks before any damage is done to the pipeline itself. Simple but effective.

    One form of covering for the pipelines would be a trapezoid-shaped layer of earth at least 4m thick. This type of covering can be laid down using simple earth-moving equipment and, more importantly, it can be done relatively quickly to provide immediate protection. Without similar mechanical equipment, it will take an attacking force at least 15 minutes (and probably much more) as they dig through the soil to reach the pipeline.

    However, during the construction of this layer, vibration sensor cables will be planted inside the earth at a depth of one metre to run along both sides of the protective layer, so the moment attackers begin to dig they will trigger an alarm, giving vital time for a guard force to react before damage can take place.

    Admittedly, covering the pipelines with soil will mean that any emergency repairs will be more difficult; however, given the unique threat facing the Iraqi pipeline, this is a necessary compromise.

    Should the vibration sensors be triggered (by digging activities or heavy vehicles moving on the dirt mound, for example) the system will automatically activate the cameras of the two closest systems, which operate into the infrared spectrum for night and low-light functionality as well as daytime operations.

    While this will not eliminate false alarms, it will reduce them significantly and increase the effectiveness of guard forces. Audio sensors placed around the pipeline will give additional warning of a possible hostile presence. Once again, an alarm will automatically activate cameras.

    An additional and important layer of protection would be provided by using scene-change detection in the monitoring cameras. In other words, if the cameras detect movement, an alarm is triggered and the event triggering the alarm is automatically recorded and transmitted for immediate review and analysis.

    All elements of the surveillance system should be self-contained and self-powered (ideally solar-powered). Each sensor suite should be placed at 2km intervals and be pole-mounted with solar panels on top. The sensors could be linked by a network using existing wireless technologies such as 802.11b, 802.11g.

    There should be a self-contained satellite uplink station at 50km intervals, which could pipe all data into the Internet using the same communications satellites used for satellite telephone systems in the region. The data can then be sent to monitoring stations via high-speed Internet links.

    This system would allow for the remote monitoring of pipelines, pumping stations and other essential elements of the oil infrastructure from any location, regardless of distance, triggering alarms when activities occur. This would enable responses before serious damage can occur — all without the use of land-based communications wires or cables that might be attacked by saboteurs.

    There can also be multiple monitoring stations, providing a useful redundancy for backup purposes. In addition, any alarm can be simultaneously monitored by coalition and/or private security forces.

    This is not new technology — all the elements of the system proposed above already exist. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) uses similar camera monitoring technologies around the world in its remote monitoring of nuclear facilities.

    The technology used by the IAEA has already been modified for use by UN headquarters for future remote monitoring of suspected dual-use sites in Iraq, using wireless satellite-based data transmission with self-contained solar power systems. Many commercial firms have already consolidated these technologies into off-the-shelf packages.

    Richard Hubbell is a former US government official now working as a security consultant with the Spectal Corporation

    Guy Martelle is a former senior engineer with the International Atomic Energy Agency, responsible for remote monitoring

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