In an office at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), researchers are working on a challenging task: adapting technology designed to find signs of life on Mars into sophisticated sensors for energy utilities. In turn, the energy utilities hope to include these sensors, originally designed to detect methane, into integrated drone aircraft which will patrol natural gas pipelines to find leaks.
The sensors are tuneable laser spectrometers, about one foot long, which can be placed on aircraft. An earlier version of the sensors was integrated into the Mars Curiosity rover, which used them to find spikes in methane on Mars. Methane is believed by many scientists to be a possible sign of life on Mars, and as JPL scientist Lance Christensen put it, “We wanted to go over there and sniff for methane.” Now the sensors, in a later iteration, are being coupled with a homegrown software package to find gas leaks. NASA is currently working on taking these sensors and finding the best way for energy utilities to use (and pay for them)–and that “best way” appears to be integration into unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones.
NASA is working on building the UAV-based gas leak detectors with Pacific Gas & Electric, a public gas and electric utility serving approximately 16,000,000 customers in San Francisco and northern California, and a third-party partner. I viewed a tryout of their prototype version at a PG&E training facility in Livermore, California, which resembled a movie backlot re-creation of a suburban town. On a fake suburban street filled with sheds decorated like suburban homes that just happened to have gas leaks in the backyard, Christensen tracked the leaks with a handheld sensor (pictured) that beamed information by Bluetooth to a member of PG&E’s R&D team via Bluetooth. Near-real-time pings were then sent to a nearby laptop, which visualized results.
Francois Rongere, a R&D manager at PG&E, tells Fast Company that the new prototype sensor is 1,000 times more sensitive than the current detection methods used by the gas company’s teams in the field, finds leaks more quickly, and is substantially cheaper than the infrared-based leak survey detectors and techniques the utility currently uses. “With this, we don’t have to walk every meter and foot of our assets,” Rongere adds. “It will be cheaper and faster.”
Right now, the challenge for NASA, PG&E, an the manufacturer is putting the finishing touches on the technology that will be put in the field. While the core sensor is more or less similar to the one on the Mars Curiosity rover, the accompanying software is quite different. Christensen and colleague Andrew Aubrey noted that there were substantial challenges in terms of issues such as modeling methane plumes and delivering quick visualization and data analysis. The finished product is expected to be either a small UAV-based sensor or a handheld product for inspectors, which will beam results to a small tablet instead of a laptop. PG&E, which is handling testing and usage procedure, says the sensors will be marketed to other utilities as well.
Public utilities such as PG&E are interested in using UAVs for monitoring pipelines because they are far cheaper than using ground crews in vehicles, and far easier to use in mountainous or remote terrain (which, for Bay Area-based PG&E, is a significant issue). Last year, another California utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, was recently granted experimental air rights to test UAVs by the FAA. Due to the fact that commercial and public-service drones are a new and controversial technology in civilian airspace, the FAA has taken a conservative approach toward approval and integration.
Both NASA and energy utilities have vested interests in turning Mars Curiosity technology into usable sensors. NASA derives substantial revenue from licensing their patents to third parties and partnerships with organizations such as PG&E. The utility, meanwhile, is still reeling from a 2010 pipeline explosion which killed eight people and injured 66 others. Due to America’s aging infrastructure, pipeline leaks and explosions are surprisingly common.