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What's That Smell? NASA’s Gas-Sniffing Drone Can Spot Methane Leaks More Accurately Than Previous Instruments

Mar 31, 2016 04:59 AM EDT
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In hopes to improve the safety in the natural gas industry, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has successfully flight-tested a quadcopter equipped with a miniature methane detector.

This small but heavyweight device can detect even small methane leaks in the pipelines, better than the previously available hand-carried or unmanned instruments.

According to a Space Daily report, NASA mounted an Open Path Laser Spectrometer (OPLS) sensor into a small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) and has successfully tested it for vertical take-off and landing.

The OPLS, developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, has the ability to detect and accurately pinpointing methane in parts per billion by volume.

"These tests mark the latest chapter in the development of what we believe will eventually be a universal methane monitoring system for detecting fugitive natural-gas emissions and contributing to studies of climate change," said Lance Christensen, OPLS principal investigator, in a statement.

The field test for the gas-sniffing drone was done in central California at the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve by researchers from JPL and the Mechatronics Embedded Systems and Automation (MESA) Lab at the University of California, Merced.

To test the accuracy and robustness of the system, the methane-sensitive drone was tested in a in a controlled setting.

The test was funded by Pipeline Research Council International and is part of the latest effort of NASA's JPL methane testing and demonstration program conducted on various platforms since 2014.

Maine News Online reported that the drones with an attached OPLS are very powerful in detecting small amount of methane in the air. However, it may be best to steer clear of dairy farms due to cow farts, which also has methane in them.

In the past, annual inspection teams were employed by the natural gas industry to check out leaks in their pipeline, according to Gizmodo.

But with the proved efficiency and safety of an unmanned drone flying over their pipelines to sniff out small leaks can now change the face of the business.

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