You can have innovation or you can have regulation.
That’s what the governor of North Dakota in 2016 told Tad True, vice president of Bridger Pipelines, after more than 12,000 barrels of oil leaked into the land when a hillside crumbled and broke a pipeline.
“The rate of the leak was small enough that we didn’t detect it right away,” True said.
The pipeline leaked for several days, and when all was said and done they realized one of their meters had been malfunctioning, which is why it took so long to catch the problem.
After the major spill, the company decided it needed to take steps to avoid similar events in the future by developing a new, more intuitive detection software. Somebody in the Bridger Pipelines information technology department suggested using IBM’s Watson, a computer-learning program that you may recognize as the robot that in 2011 beat Ken Jennings in a game of Jeopardy.
Bridger began working with IBM to develop an artificial intelligence program to detect oil leaks about two years ago, under the umbrella of the True companies, which is the parent of Bridger Pipelines. Now they’re ready to test the product and put it out into the world.
So they called Jerad Stack.
Stack is a longtime Wyoming entrepreneur and former director of the Wyoming Technology Business Center in Casper. Now, he’s the CEO of Flowstate, a pipeline leak detection software company funded by the True companies. Stack and his business partner Angie Schrader plan to finish developing the software in Casper. They said eventually they would like to expand the product’s functionality to other pipeline industries, not just oil.
Both Stack and True said their main priorities are safety and environmental protection. If the software works the way they hope it does, even when there is a leak, they’ll be able to catch it before it gets too bad.
“Ideally, you never use the software,” because ideally there would never be a leak, Stack said.
But if and when there is one, he said the software would serve as the first line of defense.
Pipeline leak detection isn’t a new idea. Once upon a time, it looked like a ditch rider on a horse looking for oil spots in the dirt. Today, detection software is an industry all its own.
But Flowstate is different, Stack said, because they’re using artificial intelligence.
Bridger Pipelines alone has enough sensors on its pipes to gather 15,000 data points every second. True said that the amount of data collection made AI uniquely suited for the project.
Artificial intelligence, or computer learning, “is really the ability to take a computer and make it learn,” Stack said.
The software takes all the data Bridger has and teaches the computer what a healthy pipeline looks like. Stack said Flowstate’s partnership with Bridger is another aspect of the company that makes it unique in the industry.
Not only does Flowstate have access to Bridger’s data, but the company also has access to Bridger’s pipes, which means they can test the software internally before putting it out to market.
Bill Salvin, a Bridger spokesman, said that’s done by removing oil from the pipeline with a tanker truck, which creates leak-like conditions in the pipe. If the software works, the next metering station on the pipeline should light up as if there’s been a leak.
But because pipeline leaks are relatively rare compared to the amount of data the company collects, simulating a leak in this way also helps the AI program learn.
The software has already been installed on a handful of Bridger Pipeline segments, and True said more are on the way.
The software isn’t yet ready for market, though. Stack and Schrader are still gathering data and testing the product, but they hope to have something to sell this year.
The pair plan to hire around 12 people to work in their Casper office, which will soon run out of The Nolan in the former Plains Furniture building. Stack hopes the business can serve as a catalyst for a tech industry in Casper. They anticipate recruitment to be a challenge, given that Casper is still a “small town” to most of the country and doesn’t have a reputation for technology innovation.