That is a great question.
There are a number of ways in which radio frequency identification could be employed to detect thieves approaching a pipeline. Several companies sell mesh networks—very advanced RFID systems in which nodes have sensors that can detect vibrations and other environmental changes, and then communicate that information from one node to the next until the data reaches a host system. Software can sound an alarm if an intruder is detected.
Lockheed Martin and Textron each offer active wireless mesh-network systems to the military and private sector, to monitor movements or hazardous conditions (see Intrusion-Detecting Sensors Protect Borders, Troops). These devices are designed to utilize very little power, and can be run by solar energy. This could be a relatively cost-effective option, since a company need not run miles of wiring in order to power the sensors.
In 2010, we published an article about inventor Kenneth Cecil, who had patented an RFID detection system comprising ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) RFID transponders placed on a wall or fence about 2 feet apart at varying heights (see RFID Detects Intruders). UHF readers are positioned 30 feet apart, 10 to 20 feet from the tagged wall, and are set to ping the tags 20 times per second.
Cecil’s system includes controllers designed to reside in the field and connect with up to 30 RFID readers. A central monitoring controller, at a remote location such as a guard station, continually polls all field controllers. If a transponder fails to respond, the field controller reports that transponder’s unique identification code to the central monitoring controller, which has a database of tag IDs linked to specific locations, to determine where the breach occurred. The central monitoring controller also manages the alerts.
The body of a person attempting to scale a wall would absorb the RF energy between a tag and a reader, briefly blocking the signal and preventing that tag from responding to the reader with its unique ID. Cecil has also developed a tunnel-detection system that involves burying RFID tags and readers in plastic pipes and monitoring interruptions between signal and tag. If communication between a transponder and a reader is interrupted, the field controller relays the tag’s unique ID to the central monitoring controller.
You could also set the system to send a Short Message Service (SMS) text message to a security guard’s phone, point a closed-circuit television in the direction of the intrusion, sound an alarm or all of the above. This solution could be adapted whereby instead of detecting a body between a wall and the readers, it would detect someone approaching the oil pipeline. There are readers that can communicate via the cell network to send data to a remote monitoring station.
That said, I don’t know if these are the most cost-effective ways to protect pipeline. Video surveillance with computers that analyze the images to detect intruders might be a cheaper solution—at least for above-ground intrusions.
—Mark Roberti, Founder and Editor, RFID Journal