Train Derailment in North Dakota Sends a Fireball Skyrocketing

Monday, a mile-long train carrying crude oil derailed near Casselton, ND, sending a fireball skyrocketing and plumes of black smoke filling the air.  Fortunately, no one was hurt in the explosion, but concern over toxic fumes from the smoke has prompted authorities to call for an evacuation of the town.

As darkness fell, the fire was still so intense that investigators couldn’t get close enough to count the number of cars ablaze, but an estimate put that number at 10.  With temperatures below zero, the heat radiating from the blaze could be felt at least half a mile away.

Hannah Linnard, 13, said she was in the bedroom of her friend’s house about half a mile from the derailment, wrapping late Christmas presents.

“I looked out the window and all of a sudden the train car tipped over and the whole thing was engulfed in flames and it just exploded.  The oil car tipped over onto the grain car,” she said.  Hannah said she could feel the warmth even inside the house. – Huffington Post, Train Derailment Causes Fiery Destruction In Casselton, ND, Dave Koplack, 12/30/13, 9:54PM EST

The North Dakota Department of Health warned that exposure to the burning oil could cause a variety of symptoms including: shortness of breath, coughing and itching and watery eyes.  People suffering from respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema in the vicinity were urged to minimize outdoor activity.

Ed McConnell said early Tuesday that most residents heeded the recommendation to evacuate their homes to avoid the strong winds predicted to shift blowing potentially hazardous smoke toward the town overnight. With forecasts predicting one of the coldest nights of the year, residents were urged to relocate to a shelter at Discovery Middle School in Fargo, about 25 miles away, rather than sleep in their cars.

The rail tracks run straight through the middle of Casselton, a town of 2,400 people about 25 miles west of Fargo.  McConnell estimated that dozens of people could have been killed if the derailment had happened within city limits. ABC News, Mayor: ND Town Dodged a Bullet in Crude Explosion, Dave Kolpack, 12/31/2013 (AP)

According to Oil & Gas Journal statistics, North Dakota produced 242,486,000 barrels of oil in 2012, and a good portion of the production is transported by rail. United States Crude Oil Production By State – Annual, PennEnergy Research.  The number of crude oil carloads has seen a dramatic increase since 2009 as activity in the Bakken continues.



What do the Explorer, Photobombs, and The Atlantic Have to Do With a Work Trip to Houston?

This week, I was in Houston for work.  On the way home, I decided that I didn’t want to read my books, because…reasons.  The point is I picked up the December issue of The Atlantic.  Typically, I don’t read many magazines.  However, lately I’d heard/read this title quite a bit.  Late night flight, short attention span, sounds like time for a magazine to me!  Settled into my aisle seat, I open the cover and start reading.  Before page 24, I’m hooked.  On page 24, I’m searching for the subscription card.  Why?  “Photobomb: A New Data-Recording Device for First Responders” by Eleanor Smith.

The Atlantic does this “By Design” thing, this issue featured a rubberized ball, but this not just any rubberized ball.  This is designed with SWAT and military units in mind.  These teams have used fiber-optic cameras, robotics, and other such tools to figure out what’s happening in dicey situations.  Now, this technology is expensive, technically complex, and requires quite a bit of training, which puts it out of the running for a lot of cops, firefighters, and search-and-rescue teams.

The Explorer by Bounce Imaging,

The Explorer by Bounce Imaging,

Boston start-up company, Bounce Imaging, has developed this thing called the Explorer in the hopes of a solution to the problem.  Their device is roughly the size of a baseball, and contains six cameras, a microphone, and interchangeable sensors inside.  Where current solutions to discover the precise nature of a situation are not-so-easy to use, the Explorer is intuitive and requires minimal training.  To use it, the user pushes a button and tosses the device toward the target area.  As it bounces, rolls, and spins, the cameras take a picture every half a second.  It uses near-infrared lights, invisible to the human eye, as a flash.  All these images are relayed back to a mobile device synchronized to the Explorer and stitches them together into a cohesive panoramic view.  It doesn’t stop there, it also takes the temperature of the room, transmits a live audio feed, and additional information from up to two sensors.  The additional sensors include options like carbon monoxide, explosive gases, and radiation.  Now, unlike the robotics or fiber-optic cameras currently used in similar situations, the Explorer isn’t something that you can manipulate remotely.  However, you get the feedback for up to 15 minutes.

The creators designed this to be an inexpensive, dispensable solution.  Testing for this crafty little ball is scheduled to commence with a Boston SWAT team, a police unit in Revere, MA, a prison response team in Maine, and the MIT campus police.  Okay, so the MIT campus police threw me for a minute, (Sing with me!  One of this things is not like the others…)but think about it, students with those kind of skills?  There are some friends I wouldn’t leave alone in a hardware store for fear of what they would concoct…Francisco Aguilar and David Young, designers and founders of Bounce Imaging, would know all about the students at MIT.  Aguilar and Young both have MBA’s from MIT Sloan School of Management, or they may have just gotten MBA’s at MIT Sloan School of Management and have connections there…Personally, I prefer my first hypothesis.

The team at Bounce Imaging was nominated for the Popular Science Invention Award in May.  Their article shed some light on the conception of this little thing.

After an earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, search-and-rescue teams descended upon Port-au-Prince to look for survivors. Francisco Aguilar, a graduate student in public policy at the time, was shocked to read stories about crews relying on complex, expensive imaging systems. “Only a few teams had them, and you had to be really well trained to use them,” Aguilar says. He soon launched a start-up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to develop a simple way to explore hard-to-reach places: a throwable, expendable, baseball-size probe. – Gregory Mone, Popular Science, 2013 Invention Awards: Smart Ball, May 10, 2013

Details also did a piece on their throwable reconnaissance device.

So, how does this relate to the energy sector?  The Explorer can be adapted for complex tasks like industrial inspection.  The impact this can have on refineries, gas processing plants, pipelines, etc. is going to be worth keeping an eye on.  Can you imagine the possibilities?  Well, I can.  I slipped off to sleep in my aisle seat on the airplane and dreamed about bouncing balls taking pictures and recording helpful information like…Hmm…Well, like so many dreams those ideas got left behind when I woke up.

‘Til next time,