We hear a plethora of news about big data—that is, about the connections, dependencies and anticipated outcomes that can be gleaned from large amounts of data. However, we rarely gain insights into the millions of sensors that are collecting all of that data. Ruggedized technologies and advancements in robotics have allowed sensors to enter—and to be maintained in—environments uninhabitable for humans. Today, sensors can be found in the depths of the oceans, outside of the International Space Station and inside the human body.

Using robots to gather data from natural gas pipelines

Pipetel Technologies has combined innovative robotics with world-class sensors to develop a novel technology that inspects natural gas pipelines. The company’s self-propelled tetherless robots are able to move through pipes that were previously inaccessible, or unpiggable, collecting data to inform pipeline operators about the integrity of their assets. Pipetel’s robotic inline inspection method competes with existing methods, including direct assessment, hydrostatic testing and guided wave ultrasound, which have been industry standards for decades.

Pipetel robot
Pipetel’s Explorer 2026 robot is manoeuvred into a pipe. Photo credit: YouTube

Pipetel’s robots can enter and exit a pipeline without interruption to gas service. Operators control the movement of a robot wirelessly, navigating it around corners, through bends and even into narrower sections of pipeline. The robot can be recharged while inside a pipeline, allowing for continuous inspections over long distances. Industry studies have shown that inline inspection provides more data and information on the integrity conditions of pipelines, and that said data is more accurate and of superior quality than data gathered by other methods. Inline inspection is also more cost effective than its alternatives and does not damage the pipeline being inspected.

Each of Pipetel’s robots comes with multiple sensors that are specifically designed to function within an operating natural gas pipeline. The various sensors collect detailed data points that, when assembled together, provide operators with the information they require. The robots also have high-resolution cameras that provide visual inspection capabilities. Also affixed to the robots are magnetic flux leakage sensors, which detect metal loss, and laser deformation sensors, which measure deformations, including dents and ovalities in the pipes.

The wealth of data collected by the robot is analyzed by Pipetel’s proprietary software. The data is then compiled into customized reports for the operators, detailing the conditions of the pipeline, complete with locations, dimensions and severity of any defects.

Since launching in 2010, Pipetel is establishing itself as a leader in the space, having completed over 120 inspections. The company currently has long-term agreements with 25 of the top natural gas pipeline operators and distributors in Canada and the United States.

I spoke with Paul Laursen, president of Pipetel, about the company’s success and his advice for fellow entrepreneurs.

MaRS: What inspired the founding of Pipetel?

Paul Laursen (PL): We saw very early on the tremendous potential of the technology in fulfilling a need in the pipeline industry that no one else was able to fulfil. We know the ins and outs of the technology, and we have very strong partners who funded and advocated for the technology. We also had access to end users who gave us a lot of invaluable feedback on what they needed early on. We knew it was going to be challenging, but we saw a unique opportunity in front of us with many of the right pieces for us to make a significant difference in pipeline safety.

What has been the biggest challenge in building Pipetel? What have you learned through this challenge?

PL: The biggest challenge was perhaps finding the right balance between juggling all of the things that needed to be accomplished, given the market’s adoption of our service offering. We learned to set and manage the right expectations for ourselves and for our customers, so that everyone was thinking positively instead of being left frustrated.

Technologies will continue to evolve and they will never be done [evolving]. It was important for us to take small steps and to do just enough to get into the market and the game as early as possible, in order to find out about the things that our customers truly wanted and where we needed to improve.

What advice would you give budding entrepreneurs?

PL: Listen to your customers. Listen to their needs and challenges, so that you can solve their challenges. Go out there and talk to your end users as early as possible to hear their thoughts and get their buy-in.

Be open and frank with your customers. Do not over-promise—instead, try to over-deliver in their overall experience.

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Jennifer Minelli

Jennifer manages the accelerating ventures program at MaRS, supporting high-growth ventures in the cleantech, health and information & communications technology (ICT) sectors.See more…