GDF Suez Tries RFID Underground

By Claire Swedberg

The multinational energy firm is testing a system that employs passive RFID tags to enable the detection of subterranean polyethylene utility pipes.


Multinational energy company GDF Suez is currently testing an RFID system that could let its staff to detect the locations of plastic pipes located underground with the use of a handheld reader. The equipment-localization solution is being provided by RYB, a utility piping and networks firm, and was developed by RYB together with applied research institute CEA-Leti, which contributed its laboratories for preliminary testing and assisted with technology development. If testing continues successfully says Marc Florette, the director of GDF Suez’s R&D division, the company may plan a measured approach of installing tagged polyethylene pipes.

GDF Suez, the largest utility company in the world, generates and distributes electricity, natural gas and renewable energy. The firm is providing the testing ground for the solution—known as ELIOT (derived from the phrase Equipment for Localization and Identification by Object Technology)—in an area near Paris with varied soil and ground cover. Based on the results of the testing, the system may be commercialized by the end of this year, enabling companies to identify underground pipes.

Marc Florette

RYB is a French provider of polyethylene (PE) piping systems, the majority of which are designed for use with gas and water. In response to the needs of utility companies, the firm began developing a system to identify the locations of PE pipes in urban and rural settings in a variety of soil types, using a handheld RFID interrogator to capture the ID number of a passive tag embedded within a pipe. (RYB declines to indicate the frequency used for RFID transmissions.) The solution not only allows for the detection of pipes underground, but also enables users to write data to the tags in or on the pipes, at a distance of up to 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) underground. It consists of RFID marker tags that can be attached to pipes already installed underground; in the future, RYB plans to offer a variety of dimensions of its own PE pipes with built-in RFID tags. The system also includes software, developed by RYB, for storing information regarding each PE pipe, linked to each tag’s unique ID number. The tag itself can store data about the pipe, including the type of material it carries, as well as its dimensions and installation date.

Currently, most utility companies must utilize maps to identify the locations of buried pipes, which not only is inconvenient for underground pipe workers, but can also be a safety issue. Insufficient information about a pipe’s location can lead to an industrial accident, in which a pipe could be inadvertently cut or broken.

The system can detect a pipe’s location to within a few centimeters, says Marc Palomares, RYB’s technical manager. To date, he reports, the tags have been read successfully through tar, sand, rocks and dry or wet soil.

“We started with an idea about how to detect plastic pipes underground,” says Pierre Damien Berger, the head of the smart devices, telecommunications and integrative industries program at CEA-Leti’s systems-integration division. Metal pipes can be detected using metal detectors, he explains, but locating plastic pipes can prove more challenging. Once the group determined that RFID technology was the best solution for this task, it considered two options: inserting a tag inside each pipe, or placing it on the pipe’s exterior. Neither choice was ideal, however, since a tag could be broken loose when mounted either inside or outside the pipe, due to pressure from the earth, or to movement gasses and liquids passing through the pipe. So instead, the group developed a system to integrate the tag directly into the pipe, by inserting it between two layers of the pipe’s wall. For pipes already installed underground, tags could be attached to their exterior. The tags can store 2,000 characters of data, though the company expects to provide tags in the future that will be able to store as many as 80,000 characters.

Next, Berger says, the group needed to test the system in order to determine whether the tags could be read through a variety of materials, including ground saturated with water. In 2009, the team tested some tagged pipes in the ground at a CEA site in the French Alps, with a tag glued to a pipe’s exterior. The test consisted of simply reading the tags and discerning their location, but not writing to them. “The results were quite good,” he states.

Testing is now underway at a GDF Suez site near Paris.

“In our company, we own a grid for distribution of natural gas,” Florette says, “and it’s important for us to improve the localization of pipes… The need we have is for technology that would fit all sizes of pipes, economically.” The technology, he notes, would be built into new pipes and could be retrofitted onto (attached to the exterior of) existing pipes. GDF Suez maintains pipelines throughout Europe, as well as in Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Thailand; the system’s installation would most likely take place in Europe.

GDF Suez’s management goal is to adopt a technological solution for identifying plastic pipes underground that would not require additional labor on the part of line workers. For example, the company envisions employees walking along the grid while carrying a handheld RFID reader that would work so quickly that they could identify exactly where the pipes were laid without requiring workers to pause or slow their pace in order to obtain a reading. Thus far, Florette says, the tags are being read at a rate of approximately 90 percent.

Upon the pilot’s completion, RYB will determine its success and then prepare the commercialization of the ELIOT product at the end of 2011. In the meantime, GDF Suez will study the results of the pilot. “The decision for use of the technology will be taken when we’ve fully assessed the results of the pilot,” Florette states, though he already has a high regard for RFID. “There is no technology as good as this one.”

By the end of this year, RYB expects to be able to provide RFID marker tags that can be installed on existing pipes. RFID-enabled RYB pipes with built-in tags are anticipated to follow.