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Wide Area Information Systems with a Purpose – Aviation, Oil & Gas, etc.

The commercial aviation sector has coined the term SWIM, which stands for System Wide Information Management. In a SWIM system, there are many information services that are widely distributed and which are dynamically integrated to provide global access to information about aircraft, airports, airspaces, and navigation aids, as well as weather and other geographic events. SWIM systems are required to meet the growing demand for air travel, and to achieve enhanced levels of efficiency, safety, reduce emissions, and meet regulatory compliance. What is characteristic about SWIM is that there is no central point of control, and that stakeholders (e.g. an airport) are constantly adding or modifying information services that are part of the system. In this sense, SWIM is like the Internet itself on which it is being built; however, unlike the Internet, SWIM exists to meet a global set of management objectives for the aviation industry.

Aviation is not the only industry for which SWIM-like systems exist or will come into being in the near future. Another environment where such systems are valuable is that of pipelines for oil and gas. In the United States, alone, there are some 320,000 miles of natural gas pipeline and over 185,000 miles of oil pipelines. Information about the state of these pipelines is a critical safety issue, as was illustrated by the San Bruno explosion in 2010, when a decision was made to increase a pipeline segment operating pressure resulting in a weld failure and, ultimately, the deaths of 8 persons and over 2 billion dollars in fines and property damage. Executives of the operator, PG&E, were criminally indicted for failure to acquire and integrate information for their decisions on pipeline inspection and operation.

Acquisition and integration of pipeline information is more difficult than it might sound. Many players are involved, including engineers, inspectors, manufacturers, and specialized measurement companies. Today, the information from these companies comes in a wide variety of formats and encodings, and there is no standard vocabulary to refer to pipeline components, either from one operator to another or across different manufacturers. Moreover, the current state of a pipeline usually depends not only on the character of manufactured components, but how they were used in construction, and how they have been modified and updated over time. Understanding the state of a pipeline today depends on the history of its components throughout their entire life cycle from engineering design to field installation.

To date, no one is talking about SWIM for natural gas pipelines; however, the beginnings are there in the form of standardization of data exchange with respect to pipeline measurements and pipeline field components, and the development of a standard vocabulary and identifiers for manufactured components. We anticipate that this will give rise to more SWIM-like systems, integrating information from regulators, manufacturers, engineering, constructors, operators, and service vendors.

The stakes involved are significant. Of the 320,000 miles of natural gas pipeline in the United States, nearly half was constructed before 1950. Like San Bruno, which was built in 1954, much of the areas where these pipelines were installed was, at the time, rural, undeveloped land, but is now beneath small towns and cities. This situation will only increase. Furthermore, natural gas is a growing part of the overall energy picture, and a majority of the tall buildings in our cities are heated in this manner. One can only imagine the consequences of an explosion like San Bruno happening in the downtown core of a major city.

We anticipate the appearance and increasing growth of these SWIM-like wide area information management systems for a large number of geographically distributed domains, including the environment, national security, global pandemics, highways, and urban development. Like SWIM in the aviation industry, we anticipate that these systems will address common objectives such as safety, efficiency, emissions control, and regulatory compliance and, like SWIM, we expect that such systems will evolve without a central locus of control.

We refer to such systems as Wide Area Systems with a Purpose (WASP). WASP systems will frequently build on other key technology developments such as the Internet of Things, wearable technology, and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communication, but will address global, pan-Enterprise information management issues. Whereas these underlying technologies deal with local device issues, WASP will provide the key services for automated information aggregation, identification, access control, and integration.

Look for more articles on WASP in coming blogs.