Drone Equipped With Sensor Allows NASA To Monitor Methane Safety

Researchers attached a tiny methane gas sensor to a drone and it successfully spotted methane leaks more accurately than modern instruments.

A mini methane gas sensor developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is shown attached to a drone during a flight test. The sensor detects methane with greater precision than other instruments used today. (Image credit: University of California, Merced)
A mini methane gas sensor developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is shown attached to a drone during a flight test. The sensor detects methane with greater precision than other instruments used today. (Image credit: University of California, Merced)

Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of California, Merced’s Mechatronics, Embedded System and Automation Lab attached a tiny methane gas sensor to a small drone and successfully tested its ability to spot methane leaks more accurately than modern instruments, NASA announced in a Monday press statement.

The JPL-developed sensor, known as the Open Path Laser Spectrometer, or OPLS, can spot methane in parts per billion by volume, an ability NASA claims could help pipeline workers to better detect methane leaks. For perspective, Lance Christensen of JPL told Product Design & Development that modern handheld devices identify methane in a few parts per million by volume.

During the test, which took place in late February at the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve in central California, the researchers affixed the sensor to the drone, which they flew at varying distances from gas sources that release methane. Since investigators wanted the examination of the sensor to be as accurate as possible, the tests were conducted in a controlled setting.

The researchers will conduct more tests of the sensor later this year using fixed-wing drones, because those systems can fly for longer durations than the propeller drone used for the February testing. The ability to fly longer and farther works better for missions involving the inspection of natural-gas transmission pipeline systems because those systems typically span for hundreds of miles, sometimes into remote areas.

“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 at JPL, according to the press statement.

The recent tests were funded by Pipeline Research Council International.

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