Engineering news

Gas-sniffing drones detect methane leaks from a distance

Joseph Flaig

An ABB drone on the hunt for methane (Credit: ABB)
An ABB drone on the hunt for methane (Credit: ABB)

Gas-sniffing drones will detect costly methane leaks from a distance while swooping above pipelines.

The drone-mounted gas leak detection system is being launched by ABB in Houston, Texas, and is designed to improve infrastructure safety, safeguard the environment and protect energy company revenue.

The technology uses patented cavity-enhanced absorption spectroscopy to detect methane and ethane. The technique, known as Off-Axis Integrated Cavity Output Spectroscopy (OA-ICOS), is reportedly more than 1,000 times more sensitive than conventional leak detection tools. The “extreme” sensitivity helps drones quickly identify potential methane emissions at a greater distance while flying, something that is not possible with other sensors. 

ABB’s analysis software automatically processes the collected methane, ethane, GPS and wind data to create simple reports, which can help quickly identify lengths of the pipeline network with potential leaks. The project uses ABB’s Ability software, letting authorised users around the world view flight progress in real time.

Mounting the gas detection equipment on drones enables faster identification of leaks, requires less staff time to implement, and costs less to operate as it covers wide, hard-to-reach areas. To avoid false readings, it can distinguish between biogenic methane – from ruminant animals such as cows, manure and shallow coal and oil deposits – and thermogenic methane, from natural gas.

The technology "offers a number of key advantages which will continue to benefit the oil and gas industry for some time,” said Doug Baer, global manager of laser analysers at ABB Measurement & Analytics, to Professional Engineering.

“Perhaps the most significant of these are the drone’s ability to improve safety in the field, the speed and sensitivity of measurements, and access to assets that may not be reached by foot. Drones also have substantial advantages when compared to manned survey flights as they are less expensive and can fly lower than manned aircraft, which makes reliable detection of diffuse methane gas plumes easier and more effective.”

The mobile gas leak detection system is also used on road vehicles and handheld detection devices, letting companies use the technology in three different ways.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Read more related articles

Professional Engineering magazine

Current Issue: Issue 8, 2019

PE1 Cover
  • The Soaring Twenties
  • Measuring up extra-large parts
  • Your Institution needs you
  • Aviation rises to the carbon challenge
  • Innovation without borders

    View all

Professional Engineering app

  • Industry features and content
  • Engineering and Institution news
  • News and features exclusive to app users

Download the Professional Engineering app

Professional Engineering newsletter

A weekly round-up of the most popular and topical stories featured on our website, so you won't miss anything

Subscribe to the Professional Engineering newsletter

Opt into your industry sector newsletter

Related articles