HomeNews & MediaFeatured StoriesTesting Fiber Optics to Protect Pipelines 

August 9, 2012

Testing Fiber Optics to Protect Pipelines

An APL researcher acts as a "trespasser" during testing of fiber optic intrusion detection technologies at the Lab's new pipeline block valve testbed. Credit: JHU/APL

APL is playing a key role in a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) project to improve security for pipelines by evaluating fiber optics and other intrusion-detection technologies. With nearly 2.5 million miles of pipeline transporting natural gas, oil, and other liquids across the United States, protecting their links to infrastructure like power plants, airports, and military bases is critical to the U.S. energy supply. A single pipeline mishap or attack can be catastrophic, costing lives and millions of dollars.

Terrorist strikes on pipelines, both internationally and domestically, continue to be a threat. In Colombia, rebels have bombed the Cano Limon oil pipeline more than 950 times since 1993. In New York City, terrorists plotted to blow up JFK International Airport in 2007 by attacking fuel tanks and an underground pipeline. Just last August, a bomb was found on a natural gas pipeline in Oklahoma.

Recently, local transit authorities and commercial pipeline companies began looking for ways to combat pipeline threats such as vandalism, terrorism, and third-party intrusion (accidental damage by digging or construction). TSA, together with commercial pipeline companies, called on APL for its expertise and innovative technological solutions to address this challenge.

Fiber optic (FO) technology quickly became a frontrunner for pipeline intrusion detection, says Project Lead Daniel Katz, of the Force Projection Department, and Assistant Program Manager Chris Thompson, of the Asymmetric Operations Department. In many cases, the FO cabling already laid underground by telecommunications companies can also be used for intrusion detection. Because buried FO cable is naturally low profile and can be powered remotely, it is not easily defeated by attackers. Thanks to recent advances in algorithms and computer processing, intruders can be detected, located, and, to a degree, classified without the aid of a human operator.

“Fiber optics can be extremely effective in protecting against intruders,” says Thompson. “If laid around areas of interest, it can sense the vibrations created by an approaching intruder. The vibration waves from the intruder propagate through the ground to the fiber optic cable, causing the light being transmitted to backscatter. The backscattered signals are processed, and algorithms are applied, resulting in a signature that automatically generates alerts.”

“The hope is that each behavior we observe—like an intruder walking toward a fence to access pipeline components—will produce a unique signature or signal,” adds Katz. “A library of signals for each behavior can then be used to identify a breach and send alerts automatically to a pipeline company.”

APL is translating the needs of the operational community (in this case, the pipeline industry) to the security technology industry. “We are bridging the gap between the technology providers and end users,” Thompson explains. “APL is the middle ground, helping both sides to evaluate, in an unbiased way, how best to use the technology. This project demonstrates APL at its best—systems engineering, analysis, test, and evaluation provided as a high-quality service to the government.”

“What makes APL perfectly suited is our ability to weigh and understand both the technical challenges of fiber optics and how it works from a physics and engineering perspective within the context of intrusion detection,” says Katz.

To test FO and other intrusion-detection solutions, APL created a test bed that replicates the environment around one of the critical components of a pipeline system—a remote, above-ground block valve. Block valves, typically found at river crossings, provide a manual shutoff capability along the pipeline system. The test bed simulates the exact dimensions of a block valve site, its surrounding security fence, rock gravel ground fill, and right-of-way specifications.

“Some locations are very isolated and are critical to safeguard,” says Thompson. “If one was attacked, product flow would need to be quickly isolated to prevent spills onto the ground and adjacent waterways. Enhancing security measures at these locations ultimately helps protect our communities and the environment.”

Field testing of FO within an operational pipeline system is slated to begin this summer. APL, TSA, and commercial pipeline companies have identified viable test locations based on factors such as pipeline proximity to major cities or large numbers of people. Also this summer, APL staff will examine other intrusion-detection technologies such as fence-mounted sensors, unattended ground sensors, video-surveillance equipment, and ground radar systems.