Using lasers and drones to detect greenhouse gas leaks

Written by
Colton Poore, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment
May 1, 2023

New data suggests that gas drilling and sewer systems leak far more greenhouse gases than previously thought. But by using laser-based sensing technology in conjunction with aerial drones, researchers believe these leaks can be both accurately identified and quantified so that repairs can be made. The new technology can also be used to quickly spot otherwise unseen leaks in hard-to-access areas, an innovation the researchers said unlocks game-changing potential for atmospheric sensing.

This laser-based sensing approach is detailed in a paper published recently.  A small drone is outfitted with a retroreflector, a type of mirror that reflects incoming light directly back to the source, and a base station of gas sensing equipment with the capability to track the drone’s movement during flight. Bouncing a laser beam off the drone as it flies to set points around a suspected leak allows an operator to pinpoint the source of the leak and measure its intensity.

“That’s really the holy grail of leak detection,” said Mark Zondlo, study co-author, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and associated faculty at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

The researchers believe that this technology could spur future innovation and applications beyond methane leak detection.

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