All pipelines, including those carrying natural gas, are prone to leaks, causing revenue losses and contributing to global warming. At present, most gas leaks are found by surveyors carrying hand-held devices. But a U.S. company says its flying drone will make the task much easier.
More than a million miles of pipelines carry natural gas from hundreds of thousands of wells to millions of consumers in the U.S. Its main component, methane, is also a greenhouse gas, much more potent than carbon dioxide.
The U.S. Department of Energy has a program aimed at reducing methane leaks as much as possible, especially at gas storage facilities and wellheads.
Hand-held devices, however, have limited capabilities.
“The tool that's used in the industry routinely is just used for leak surveying, to locate the leaks,” according to Michael Frish, of Physical Sciences Inc.
Combining infrared laser technology with a drone, Physical Sciences Inc. is developing an affordable device that can monitor a much larger area.
“The drone sits on this platform and serves as a continuous monitor," said Frish. "When it detects a leak from whatever it's monitoring, the drone takes off autonomously, surveys around, measures how much is leaking and locates where the leak is coming from.”
Still in the experimental phase, the drone only covers an area 10 x 10 meters square, but researchers are experimenting with many different configurations to someday extend its reach.
“For wellheads, we're envisioning a platform, perhaps one at every wellhead, and there could be many thousands of those. For other applications, we may have transportable platforms so that we allow the vehicle to go from one spot to another,” said Frish.
The operational price is set at about $3,000 a year, so the company says installation and maintenance costs will stay within those guidelines.