Published: Oct. 1, 2013
Omnisens SA

Fiber Optics Mitigate Natural Disasters

Omnisens is a world leader in high performance fiber optic monitoring. Its monitoring solutions applied in the oil and gas, electricity transport and other industries, help its customers to optimize asset performance and to secure asset integrity.

Omnisens fiber optic sensing system is able to detect, for example, leaks on pipelines, overheat of power cables with a high level of accuracy, in quasi real-time, and over distances over 60 kilometers. How? By measuring temperature differences and by monitoring strain profiles in order to identify and alarm on abnormal developments associated with the monitoring of the asset. Incidents such as leakage, ground movement and third-party intrusion all present significant financial and reputational implications. The longer such failures go unnoticed the more the consequences escalate. Omnisens allows to prepare for the unpredictable. Kilometers of fiber optic cables are laid with high-voltage cables and pipelines, that can replace 10,000 control points positioned at 100 centimeter intervals over a 10 kilometer stretch.

EPFL Spin-Off Turns Into an International Company 

Omnisens’ CEO, Marc Nikles, is from a Neuchâtel family closely associated with the watch industry, which certainly facilitated his approach to microtechnology. In 1997, he submitted his thesis on fiber optics to the EPFL (École polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne). At that stage, he was already considering how fiber optics could be used as sensors. A first prototype was developed that was able to identify points of overheating, which is a sure indication of various anomalies. The invention was initially used for electricity cables and gas pipelines, and these remain the core business of Omnisens although applications in related fields are being developed.

Founded in 1999 as a spin-off from EPFL Omnisens brought its first product to the market in 2002. Over the years, it has built solid foundations with qualified employees, comprehensive expertise, and highly specialized know-how. Morges-based Omnisens has 27 employees, including five specialists with doctorates in fiber optics. Despite the move to Morges, the link with EPFL is still strong, mainly thanks to a series of projects funded by the CTI (Commission for Technology and Innovation). The company also has offices in the US, just opened a subsidiary in Brazil, and has created a distributor network around the world. Sales growth of the Company has been tremendous in the last 3 years, currently three times the level since Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd. entered its capital in late 2010. In 2011 Omnisens reached breakeven for the first time in its history.

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Dangerous Deployment Areas 

In 2006 the company changed its strategy. The focus is no longer on producing measuring instruments, but on the overall monitoring of critical structures in the energy sector. Many clients are looking for turnkey solutions. Fiber optic sensors require installation and maintenance, the data recorded needs analyzing, and employees need training. Omnisens provides all of these services. The entry of a venture capitalist in 2008 contributed to the implementation of this reorientation. Omnisens has clients located around the world, who are aware of the serious consequences of a defect in a power cable,  pipeline, or offshore structure. In Latin America, for example, pipelines have to cross the Andes, where landslides are a real threat. In Russia, for example, the subsoil is increasingly unstable due to thawing of the permafrost. The 140-kilometer pipeline connecting the Sakhalin offshore fields with Vladivostok on the Russian mainland crosses unstable terrain in remote areas. Special trenches with loose sand backfills were therefore designed to prevent the pipeline from moving with possible soil movements. Omnisens has housed fiber optic sensors along the entire pipeline’s route. These sensors constantly measure any strain detected and send out an alarm, indicating a few centimeters of soil movement within minutes to the operator, who then knows where to send the inspection team to act promptly to mitigate further losses.

In the North Sea, the challenge is to maintain pipelines at a constant temperature to prevent petroleum from freezing. Omnisens thus monitors a heated subsea pipeline located in the North Sea off the Islay (oil) field in realtime with continuous temperature information at meter intervals to within 0.1° Celsius. In Alaska, Omnisens technology has most likely already contributed to preventing damage to a pipeline. This was laid in a trench dug out of the ice, and as the temperature of the environment rose, the pipeline was exposed to melt water. The system sounded the alarm, and the petroleum was prevented from thickening too much. With the aid of the system, the exact location of the problem could be identified. The world’s largest wind farm is located off the coast of Great Britain. The submarine power cables transferring the electricity to shore are monitored by Omnisens systems, as is a 32 kilometer long subsea interconnector linking Guangdong to Hainan Island, a popular resort destination in China.

Subsea umbilical and risers (temporary extensions of a subsea oil well to a surface drilling facility) are constantly under strain as they are subject to fast changing weather conditions and sea states. Omnisens monitors dynamic strain and fatigue accumulation, as well as temperature fluctuations, which allows to generate alarms in case of detected fatigue or strain on the subsea umbilicals or risers. Omnisens has developed a model calculating the fatigue life, predicting failure well in advance of any incident. The monitoring of flexible subsea umbilicals and risers is a fast growing segment for Omnisens, which is well positioned to become one of the segment’s dominant player.

As oil and gas operators are forced to move into increasingly harsh environments and develop more complex oil reserves, how assurance is more and more important. Omnisens is developing a distributed sensing technology, the fourth generation of its product, capable to measure almost in a realtime manner rather than every 15th second as was previously the case. The new technology has much longer distance capabilities with meter spatial resolution that will be able to take measurement up to 100 km and at least 300 km with amplification, giving it a unique edge over its competitors. The first prototype is scheduled to be ready by summer 2013 and commercialized in 2014.

A Niche Market 

The large infrastructure projects Omnisens participates have long development phases. The company has dedicated, specialized employees who are following the projects and developing new applications for the technology to meet the requirements for safe and efficient monitoring of the projects under construction. In the future, Omnisens also aims to operate in the area of monitoring for the latest generation of long submarine power cables and infrastructure used for the extraction of deep-sea oil and gas.

Omnisens is in permanent competition for market share with large international groups. However, the specialists from the canton of Vaud are not put off by this and concentrate on their most important competitive advantage: Today, they are the only provider able to record data over a distance up to 300 kilometers from a single interrogator. The company is highly valued by its clients, not only for its technology, but also for the way it supports clients to find a monitoring solution for their plant, which requires more than just clever technology. The manageable size of the company means it can react with great flexibility, adapting its services to best match its clients’ requirements. The black box, which collects data, is installed at the company’s headquarters, guaranteeing Swiss quality work.

Everyone wants operators to manage these risks better. Moreover, this is still new technology and plans for monitoring installations are often limited. Although there is a long way to go in improving safety, Omnisens has a promising future thanks to its integrated approach.