Natural gas is a superior energy source – it is the cleanest of fossil fuels, highly efficient and, furthermore, it is readily available here on U.S. soil. Those factors alone make natural gas a very attractive substitute for other fossil fuels like petroleum and coal. Not only are power plants beginning to switch to natural gas alternatives, but also major manufacturers are starting to produce natural gas-run cars in greater quantities. 

To meet supply and demand, natural gas companies have rapidly increased production by expanding pipelines and facilities. As a result of development, point cloud technology is being implemented to document and model existing facilities for maintenance purposes, retrofit outdated equipment and upgrade facilities to include automation. 

What is point cloud?

Point cloud technology provides a way for companies, like natural gas facilities, to accurately obtain 3-D information of the complexities of their different compressor stations. 

Once the points are collected, the information can be processed into a visual display to create a point cloud model. Point cloud also allows surveyors to collect existing information of a facility in order to be able to go back and retrofit the area based on what already lives there. 

Fitting equipment into an existing layout is known as “clash detection.” By performing clash detection, new equipment, for example, can be placed into the design process to ensure that it fits within the allowable area of the compression station. Software like Autodesk Recap Pro allows users to directly interface with major manufacturers of 3-D scanners such as Leica, Faro and Topcon, and provides the option of displaying point clouds with varying schemas. This data can also be exported into a format compatible with products like Autocad or Revit. The end-result is the process is more efficient redesign and retrofitting options of new equipment for compression stations. 

Why Use Point Cloud?

There are three main reasons to use point cloud technology for such applications. They concern redesigning and retrofitting equipment, safety and offshore facilities.

Redesigning and retrofitting equipment – Natural gas pipeline construction has increased substantially since 2008 as the United States continues its efforts to become more energy self-sufficient. New construction raises the concern of an inevitably aging infrastructure that must be maintained. 

That is where point cloud technology, which was not readily available when these systems were built, can be utilized for the documentation process of the pipelines. Having an actual 3-D model of the compressor station allows for engineers to precisely know exactly what is in the field, allowing for a smoother design process, as well as making the construction process more efficient by reducing or even eliminating change-orders.  

Human safety – Natural gas pipeline systems are fairly complex. They are comprised of aspects such as gathering lines, processing and treatment plants, transmission lines and compressor stations. For these many moving parts to run efficiently and safely, point cloud technology can be implemented specifically in the case of natural gas compressor stations. 

Compressor stations are comprised of many components such as compressor units, scrubbers/filters, cooling facilities and emergency shutdown systems. These stations are considered at risk for fires or explosions due to their operating environments, which include heat, combustion and pressure. Because of this, gas companies are installing monitoring systems to detect gas leaks, and automated control valves. In the event a gas leak is detected above permissible levels, the automated control valves can be activated from an off-site supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system that manages and coordinates the operations of several compressor stations within a natural gas pipeline system. Due to having a point cloud model of their facilities, gas companies can see exactly where various parts and pieces of equipment are located, therefore being able to place and replace new additions with absolute certainty. 

Offshore Facilities – When considering environmental safety, you don’t need to look further than 2010’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest accidental petroleum oil spill that ever occurred. As a result of that tragedy, point cloud technology is now being used in offshore liquid natural gas facilities.  Especially on offshore rigs where space is a premium, it is important to know if equipment will fit prior to fabrication and construction. 

The ultimate goal of using point cloud technology in natural gas plants is to have the ability to virtually model and remodel existing facilities, as well as extract detailed information of already “well-oiled” machines to improve and upgrade them so they can function at their fullest capability. It provides safer processes and workplace conditions, as well as better control of environmental output, therefore reducing the risk of potentially catastrophic events. All in all, point cloud technology is a reliable up-and-coming technology that is increasing in popularity and will positively impact the design industry.

Jeremy Burt is a civil solutions specialist for Microdesk and certified Autodesk instructor with expertise in civil design and survey technology. He focuses on providing technical support, consulting services and training for civil engineering clients. Burt has experience with project management, on-site mentoring, training, support, drafting, designing, GIS and estimating. He is also adept at assisting civil engineering organizations with making the transition to BIM. Burt can be contacted at

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