A powerful methane-detection sensor flight tested by NASA researchers might increase the viability of using small unmanned aircraft systems for pipeline patrol, the agency said March 28.
The Pasadena, California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory has been testing its Open Path Laser Spectrometer sensor on various platforms since 2014. Similar to another sensor NASA developed for use on Mars, the device can detect methane in parts per billion by volume. This, the agency said, makes it a viable contender for use by the pipeline industry in detecting small methane leaks.
In late February, laboratory researchers partnered with University of California Merced’s Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation Lab to flight test the sensor on a small quadcopter that was flown at various distances from controlled methane-emitting sources.
NASA said that the sensor, coupled with a small drone’s vertical flight capabilities, could "extend the use of methane-inspection systems" and improve operational safety. The agency intends to conduct flight tests this year with a fixed-wing drone, which it said would provide the longer flight endurance necessary to inspect pipeline systems that can extend for hundreds of miles in remote areas.
The UAS industry and the energy sector both have viewed pipeline patrol and inspection services as a viable market, along with other traditionally manned aircraft roles that are either deemed “dull, dirty or dangerous,” or which view manned helicopters as cost prohibitive.
Bristow Group in early February invested $4.2 million in drone company Sky-Futures, granting the offshore helicopter operator the ability to perform unmanned inspection services to the oil and gas industry.
That same month, a team from the Imperial College in London won the United Arab Emirates’ Drones for Good Award for designing a drone that could both spot gas leaks and fix them using liquid polyurethane foam.