A robotic device designed to detect potential pipeline flaws will be deployed Friday for the first time locally by San Diego Gas & Electric in light of the country's latest deadly natural gas disaster in Allentown, PA,
It's called a 'Smart Pig'.
'Smart', referring to its advanced electronics.
'Pig', being an acronym for 'pipeline integrity gauge'.
When a natural gas pipeline loses its integrity, as witnessed in Allentown Wednesday and San Bruno, CA, last September, there's a risk of people losing their homes and lives.
"It has one large section that is basically a big magnet that magnetizes the pipeline," said SDG&E Field Services vice president Bret Lane.
He spoke at a media briefing in Otay Mesa Thursday afternoon.
"And then there's another section that's actually picking up what's called 'magnetic flux' coming off the pipeline," Lane continued. "And if there's any deformity in the pipeline, that nice smooth curve that you see on the magnet -- it'll have a dent in it."
Sometime between midnight and noon Friday, the Smart Pig will be deployed all the way through a 36-inch natural gas pipeline stretching 30 miles from Otay Mesa to Santee.
It'll move at five miles an hour, propelled by a south-to-north flow of gas, recording sections of pipe that may need digging up for visual inspection and/or replacement.
The industry is coming up with more compact versions of the Smart Pig that'll fit into smaller-diameter pipelines, including one that can vary its own size automatically.
"It looks different than this one," Lane explained, gesturing toward the 36-inch Smart Pig. "It almost looks like something you'd see out of the movie 'Transformers', how it can transform itself to go through the restrictions."
Smart Pigs are relatively few and far between, so they're always in great demand among the natural gas utilities that rent them when available.
Off the assembly line, they run upwards of $750,000.
Before they're deployed, the companies have to reconfigure their systems to backfill the pipelines that are temporarily taken out of service.
"We'll build some parallel runs around these kinds of pipelines," Lane explained, "so we can maintain our customers' supplies of gas -- from the big power plants we have, to the industrial and commercial customers, all the way down to the homes."
SDG&E has 250 miles of natural gas pipelines, so the Smart Pig will be scheduled to run through another one of the 36-inch conduits late this year or early next year.
The more compact versions eventually will be deployed into smaller-diameter pipelines.