NASA’s Methane Sensor Mates with sUAS for Pipeline Safety Research

Using a vertical takeoff and landing small unmanned aircraft system (sUAS), researchers have successfully flight-tested a miniature methane gas sensor developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

As part of a project to improve safety in the energy pipeline industry, researchers conducted the tests in central California at the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve.

The flights, funded by Pipeline Research Council International, implemented NASA’s Open Path Laser Spectrometer (OPLS). The sensor, similar to one developed by JPL for use on Mars, enables high-sensity detection of methane. The ability of the OPLS sensor to detect methane in parts per billion by volume could help the pipeline industry more accurately pinpoint small methane leaks, explains JPL.

Researchers from JPL and the Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation Lab at the University of California, Merced, conducted the flight tests in late February. The OPLS-equipped sUAS was flown at various distances from methane-emitting gas sources. Tests were done in a controlled setting to test the accuracy and robustness of the system, says JPL.
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The lab says additional flight testing this year will feature a fixed-wing UAS, which can fly longer and farther – capabilities necessary for monitoring natural-gas transmission pipeline systems, which are often hundreds of miles long and can be located in rural or 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,” states Lance Christensen, OPLS principal investigator at JPL.


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