Tony da Costa, vice president of engineering at MOBILTEX Data Ltd. (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), recently joined the Materials Performance (MP) Interview Series to discuss recent advancements in remote cathodic protection (CP) monitoring. See below for a complete transcript of the podcast episode.
His company's CorTalk RMU1+INT1 package, which was honored as an MP Corrosion Innovation Awards winner, is designed to enable utilities and pipeline operators to remotely perform interruption, obtain CP measurement data, and dramatically reduce travel to remote locations. In this newly released podcast, da Costa shares user feedback on the technology and related trends, along with unique insight and perspective from his many years in the corrosion industry. Tune in:
Ben DuBose: Tony, good afternoon. How are you?
Tony da Costa: Very good, Ben. How are you doing today?
BD: Can’t complain. Thanks for taking the time to join us. Tony, I think a good place to start, if you could, just give us a little bit of background on your position, your career in the industry, your role with Mobiltex. Before we even get to you in particular, I guess, if you could, for anyone not familiar with Mobiltex, fill our listeners in about what you all do, and then give us a little bit of your personal background as well.
TdC: Mobiltex came into being in 1985. We started out in communications very early on, connecting mobile data systems with centralized data platforms. We’ve continued that on through into the cathodic protection space, where we’re doing remote monitoring of pipeline parameters specifically related to cathodic protection. We design and build all of our equipment in house. We also have our own data platform that all of those IoT devices report into.
As far as my background, as you mentioned, I’m currently VP of engineering for Mobiltex, but I hold a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of British Columbia, and also hold a NACE CP-1 certification. I started my engineering career in Vancouver 29 years ago, where I was involved in the design of mobile digital radio systems that were really a precursor to today’s cellular systems. There, I worked with the design of digital, analog, and RF systems. Also, part of that role involved working closely with production on new product introductions. Then I decided to move to Calgary and started working for Harris Wireless on digital signal processing algorithms for digital cellular base stations.
Finally, I joined Mobiltex 22 years ago as a hardware design engineer. I took on more responsibility for systems design, and gradually transitioned to a management role through those years. While at Mobiltex, I’ve had responsibility for development of most of the current product portfolio. It’s a portfolio that I’m really quite proud of.
BD: Did you ever imagine, when you first started out — that’s an interesting background — that you’d be going down the corrosion path? What was the point in which you started transitioning your software expertise to this particular industry and saw what the potential might be?
TdC: The transition really occurred when I moved to Mobiltex. At that point in time, the remote monitoring of corrosion was actually a very small sliver of our business, but we did have product that was already being used by customers in the field. We started seeing more and more demand for the remote monitoring of these assets to keep them protected. It really grew from that.
BD: That makes sense. I suppose it’s a pretty interesting case study, just your background, on how widespread this industry can be, in which we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be in the coming years, but at the same time, you never know when a new technology that emerges is potentially going to be able to make a dent in this industry as well. I would think that your background is sort of a hopeful one for a lot of folks, in that even if you don’t necessarily go to school or whatever it is to be a corrosion engineer, there might be a way that you help out the industry down the line just within these new technologies. Does that make sense?
TdC: Absolutely. The amount of technology that we’re seeing going into pipelines these days is just incredible. Previously, we saw a lot of people that would be doing manual, tedious work to maintain these pipelines, and now it’s possible to sit in your office and attain that same level of visibility into that asset without having to leave, and you're able to get a much better data set on how those assets are operating. Technology is just a game changer for this industry.
BD: Absolutely. We usually do a couple of rapid-fire personal questions toward the end of these podcast interviews, but I thought I would sneak that in on the front end, just because when you were explaining your background, I think it’s always so interesting when you get someone who didn’t know all along that they were going to necessarily be in the corrosion engineering field. It’s sort of the evolution of technology and the modern world that lends itself to seeing some of these outside technologies make a dent in our industry as well. I certainly did not, from my perspective, that I was going to be a corrosion journalist, if you will. It just happened by happenstance, I suppose. At the same time, I think it’s probably good because then you bring in outside perspectives as well. Anyway, Tony, to circle back to the origins of our discussion, tell our listeners about your winning innovation. What is it, and how does it work?
TdC: Our innovation, the CorTalk RMU1 with INT1 interruption peripheral, represents the cathodic protection’s industry’s first permanently installed, battery-powered remote monitoring device that enables GPS-synchronized interruption for critical bonds and sacrificial anodes. The RMU1, which is the controller for the whole system, adds 2-way communications, enabling it to receive commands and to control that new INT1 peripheral device for the synchronization of the interruption waveform.
The innovation eliminates the need for technicians to install portable interrupters to break bonds or interrupt sacrificial anodes during annual or indirect survey activities. The product can be installed within minutes inside a standard 3-inch test station. That allows fuel technicians to greatly expand the remote monitoring and interruption programs to improve operating efficiency, accuracy of measurements, achieve compliance, and ultimately improve the safety of fuel personnel in the public.
BD: How long have you all been working on this, and what was the driving force to develop this technology?
TdC: Let me start off with a little bit of background on cathodic protection. Apologies to all of the CP experts out there. You know this inside and out. Normally, pipelines are protected against electrochemical corrosion, more commonly known as rust, by coatings that applied to the outside of pipes. However, inevitable defects in the coating allow contact between the metal and the pipe and the surrounding environment, which leads to rusting of the pipe at the coating defect location. This rusting eventually leads to perforation of the pipe and, along with that, leaks of the product carried by the pipeline. Instead of fixing coatings, which would be difficult to accomplish on buried pipe, impressed current rectifiers and sacrificial galvanic anodes are installed to polarize that pipeline, which prevents the normal chemical reaction that causes rust at the defect locations. The two systems collectively are known as cathodic protection. There are test stations at locations, typically space in increments of 1 mile or less, where then a variety of readings can be taken on that pipe.
To validate the operation of the rectifiers and sacrificial anodes and their effectiveness in preventing corrosion, measurements are made of critical parameters along the pipeline at test stations during annual surveys and close-interval surveys. These measurements are compared against standard protection criteria values to gage proper operation of the rectifier and galvanic anode systems. Some of those measurements require that all sources of protection current be removed while the measurements are made. These measurements are known as instant-off potentials. Those protection current sources must be reconnected after the measurement is made so as to maintain that protection level. This removal and restoration of protection current sources is known as interruption.
The availability of AC line power at rectifiers made it simple to create remote monitoring units that have become ubiquitous for gathering measurements but also enabling the interruption of those rectifiers. Unfortunately, rectifiers aren’t the only sources of instant-off potential errors on the pipeline. Bonds and sacrificial anodes are a different matter in terms of remote monitoring and control. Fortunately, at bonds and galvanic anode installation sites, AC line power is not usually available. With that, bonds and galvanic anodes rarely had remote monitoring with interruption capability, as this would typically require a remote monitoring unit that was battery powered with solar augmentation. Solar panels are expensive and always a target for theft and vandalism.
This dictated that either portable interrupters were deployed to bond and galvanic anodes during surveys, or they were simply disconnected. Disconnecting completely creates time periods where protection is not being applied to the pipeline segments at those locations. Also, survey crews need to remember to go back and reconnect all the disconnected equipment after survey completion.
Back to your original question, it was actually two of our larger customers that approached us to come up with a solution for the problem of being able to interrupt bonds and galvanic anodes using a permanently installed remote monitoring unit. They were seeing inefficiencies in their surveyed jobs as well as data that wasn’t always reflective of protection levels throughout the year. Our experience with designing low-power, battery-operated remote monitoring units gave us the ability to turn those requests into the product that we have today, the RMU1 with the INT1. With that product, those customers are now able to interrupt their bonds and galvanic anodes right from the comfort of their office while getting rich data throughout the year on their asset protection levels.
We started the RMU1+INT1 development project in May 2019. Had field trial units installed by January 2020. We then took the feedback from the field trials, modified the design slightly, and had final commercial release by mid-March 2020.
BD: What type of field testing was there? What were the environments that you put this in to collect data? In general, give an overview of how the field testing process went and why you guys were so confident that this would ultimately work as well as it has.
TdC: Field testing included the deployment and testing of five data units installed across sites located throughout North America during late January and early February 2020. In mid-February 2020, we received initial feedback and data from the first customer to have installed the RMU1 on its CP assets. We observed clean interruption waveforms that were evident in the interrupted survey recordings. That was a good indication that the RMU1 with the INT1 was working as planned. We received additional feedback from customers that participated in the field testing exercises. All in all, it was a positive affirmation before the commercial launch.
BD: What’s the interface like for users? I know it’s a little difficult to illustrate this in a podcast format, but at the same time, if our listeners want to learn more — of course you can go to www.materialsperformance.com, you can go to the awards website and you can find a lot more information about this innovation and see some graphic depictions as well. You can also check out the Mobiltex website. But broadly specking, what’s the interface like and what the platform, what types of information are available, and how is it accessed?
TdC: Certainly. The backbone of a strong IoT system is always how the device transmits out data and how that data is stored, accessed, and visualized. Our remote monitoring units leverage cellular and satellite networks to provide connectivity from the field device to the cloud. With access to RMU and CP asset data, our CorView software platform allows operators to use those communications technologies in a flexible manner, choosing whichever technology is best suited for that location. The transmitted measurement data, whether it be potentials, currents, pressures, or any other parameter being samples by the remote monitors, is stored and organized in CorView. That’s our data repository and web portal, which allows users to access the data and enables users to schedule those survey interruption events I described before.
It’s an intuitive platform that tailors well to the unique needs of various user profiles that use it, from fuel technicians, CP supervisors, and engineers, to integrity managers even. The platform is also available in app form, which complements well with our line of configuration apps used for each of our products. Essentially, anywhere that an internet connection is present, access to the data and control functionality is available to the users. With the next release of CorView that is coming this summer, we aim to give our users the ability to interface with the data on the platform in a flexible manner by offering new application programming interfaces. It will now be possible to even load data directly into Microsoft Access or Power BI by simply configuring CorView as another data source in those applications. It’s an exciting future that will allow traditionally disparate data sets to be pulled in together for meaningful analysis.
Also, as part of that release, we’ll also start introducing analytics capabilities directly into the platform. A common complaint is that of data overload with remote monitoring systems. False positives on alarming cause complacency, which results in true alarms being missed. That sea of data that comes in from all of those remote monitoring units just becomes a blur. So what if we started applying machine learning to those alarms to determine which are likely to be true alarms based on historical information, or how about analytics on that sea of data to start making predictive failure analysis? We can let users focus on other tasks to ensure asset integrity while some smart algorithms help analyze all that data that’s coming in from the remote monitoring units.
BD: This became commercially available in March 2020, right?
TdC: That’s correct.
BD: So it’s been a little over a year. You mentioned the sea of data as certainly one thing you’ve heard from customers, clients. Is there any other general themes with the feedback you’ve gotten over this first year? What are you generally hearing from your users or even people that are potentially interested in using this in the future? What are you hearing from them?
TdC: As far as the RMU1+INT1 is concerned, the feedback during the first year has all been very positive. We did receive a request for a mechanical change to allow the unit to be less visible in certain install situations where theft or vandalism is prevalent. We accommodated that through a simple mounting system that was provided to the customer within a month. A second request was related to very customer-specific requirements in measuring a potential on an unprotected coupon, with the timing being synchronized to a rectifier interruption. After analyzing the request, we determined that a simple firmware change could be made to have that happen. We provided that change to the customer, and now that same customer is expanding the use of the product because of that added functionality. This was even though it was an unintended target for this product.
As far as the data analysis is concerned, we are seeing a lot of excitement in the field around the area of analytics. It’s been traditionally an area where data has been kept in disparate databases, filed away, and not really put to its full potential. Now, the ability to take all those disparate sets and come up with meaningful predictions is an area where a lot of our customers are seeing that as the future.
BD: I was going to ask you about changes or updates that are potentially coming down the pike for this technology. You already mentioned it with the increased use of analytics. I think I’ll reframe that question. What is the time table moving forward? Do you have a best guess? Are we talking a few months? Are we talking a year or two as far as when you can potentially integrate more of these analytics, this machine learning that you talked about? It seemed pretty clear that that’s the updates to this system moving forward. Do you have an idea as to what the time frame might look like?
TdC: Certainly. Our first analytics framework is going to be going into the system as of this summer. That will be in beta test phase. It’s a system that’s going to be helping with that overload of alarms. We actually just filed a patent on that algorithm, so we expect to have that in place as it works its way through the patent system. Beyond that, we already have a full road map of other analytics features that we’ll be rolling out over the next year. We’re working with many of our customers very closely to address some of the features that they would like to see in that area.
BD: We’re wrapping up here with Tony da Costa, vice president of engineering at Mobiltex. Tony, the last question for you — I’ll split it into two parts. First off, is there anything about the innovation that we haven’t already covered that you’d like to throw out to our audience. Then, secondly, for our listeners that want to learn more about the product, the technology, you, the company, whatever it may be, how can those listeners access that, be it your website, email, basically any kind of contact information that you would like to throw out? Tony, if you could, let’s wind down by letting you address those subjects.
TdC: Certainly. On the RMU1+INT1, I think we’ve addressed most of the points there. If any of our listeners would like to either get more information or do a trial run of the product with a demo, please do contact us. The users can get more information on the RMU1+INT1 solution or any of our other products at our website, at www.mobiltex.com. Ben, I’d like to thank you for having me on and giving me a chance to go over our innovation.
BD: Absolutely. Congratulations again for being one of our winners this year. You're always a joy to deal with, so I’m happy to see your success, your company’s success, and glad that we can spotlight this more because definitely the feedback on this seems pretty promising. I’m glad to give it a little bit further spotlight, if you will, and hopefully some more people can learn about the interesting things that you all are doing.