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NASA Tests Mini Methane Sensor Aboard Drone to Improve Energy Pipeline Industry Safety

30 March 2016

Researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have successfully tested a miniature methane gas sensor aboard a Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) as part of a project to improve safety in the energy pipeline industry.
A JPL mini methane gas sensor is tested on to improve energy pipeline industry safety. (Image Credit: University of California, Merced) A JPL mini methane gas sensor is tested on to improve energy pipeline industry safety. (Image Credit: University of California, Merced)
The sensor is similar to the one JPL developed for use on Mars and can detect methane with a much higher sensitivity than tools previously available in the industry. The sensor’s ability to detect methane in parts per billion by volume could help the pipeline industry pinpoint small methane leaks more accurately.
The tests were conducted in central California at the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve in late February. The researchers from JPL and the Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation Lab at the University of California, Merced, flew the small drone equipped with the sensor at a different distance from methane-emitting gas sources. Using VTOL aircraft extended the use of methane-inspection systems for detecting and locating methane gas sources.
This latest round of tests furthers the team's goal to develop sUASs to improve traditional inspection methods for natural-gas pipeline networks, which may enhance safety and improve location accuracy.
"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, optimized potentials for liquid simulations principal investigator at JPL.
Later this year, the groups will conduct more flight tests that will include a fixed-wing UAS, which can fly longer and farther, capabilities that are necessary for monitoring natural-gas-transmission pipeline systems, which are often hundreds of miles long and can be located in rural or remote areas.

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