Drone mounted sensors sniff out leaks on gas fields
Against the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, at an elevation of nearly 5,000ft, 20 scientists and engineers look upwards, squinting against a fierce blue sky. The air hums with the sound of drones.
This is the EDF/Stanford Mobile Monitoring Challenge (MMC) — a gathering of some of the brightest and best inventors in the field with a single aim: to test a vanguard of mobile technologies that are transforming what is possible in the field of methane leak detection from oil and gas operations.
The location is Colorado State University’s custom-built Methane Emissions Technology Evaluation Center (METEC), Fort Collins. Here, decommissioned oil and gas field apparatus is rigged to the mains gas supply allowing for the release of controlled methane leaks against which scientists can blind test their technologies.
“These teams and technologies that have the potential revolutionize how we find and quantify methane leaks across global oil and gas infrastructure,” says project manager, EDF’s Isabel Mogstad.
Among the participants is SeekOps Inc., a company founded by former NASA employees Andrew Aubrey and Brendan Smith. Their team is flying by far the smallest drone: a bright orange, 7lb carbon fiber construction called The Endurance.
“Methane detection must be rapid and cost effective and for SeekOps, that means utilizing miniature technology,” says Aubrey as Smith steers The Endurance in a zigzag path around the apparatus. “We mount our lightweight sensors onto the lightest possible drone for maximum agility and efficiency.”
Aubrey pauses as his radio crackles. It’s co-pilot, Garrett John, from the other side of the field. He’s monitoring the sensor’s data in real time on a handheld tablet. “Looks like the leak’s coming from the wellheads this time,” he reports. Smith circles the drone and begins a side-to-side sweep over the site of the suspected leak. Across the facility five other teams conduct similar tests at different stations, or pads.
The business case
As a greenhouse gas, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over the short term. It causes around a quarter of manmade global warming.
A study published on June 21, found the U.S. oil and gas industry emits 13 million metric tons of methane from its operations each year — nearly 60 percent more than currently estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Energy investors are ratcheting up pressure on the industry to take action. At Chevron for example, a sharehold resolution this Spring requesting the corporation improve disclosure of its methane monitoring program and set a methane reduction target, receive an unprecedented 45% vote.
This spring, EDF announced a plan to launch MethaneSAT , a satellite to detect methane emissions across the globe. The goal is to provide the data that will expedite a reduction in methane emissions from oil and gas operations of 45% by 2025. MMC is a key part of that strategy: helping pinpoint the leaks on the ground so they can be stopped.
“Ending oil and gas methane emissions is one of the most cost-effective and impactful climate solutions anywhere,” says EDF’s Aileen Nowlan.
But environmental considerations must be strengthened by a robust business case — and that means action needs to make sense for the bottom line.
“The low price of natural gas reduces financial rewards for finding and fixing leaks, so we need mobile, low-cost and fast detection systems,” says MMC collaborator and assistant professor of energy resources at Stanford, Adam Brandt.
Making the invisible visible
Back at METEC, a whistle blows indicating a 10-minute test is over. The teams have 15 minutes to process their data and regroup before testing resumes. The tests will get harder as the week progresses, with teams asked to operate in ever shorter periods of time.
“This challenge gives us the invaluable opportunity to test our tech in a controlled environment,” says Mike Passaretti, from energy services company ULC.
Impressive as the drones are, the true innovation here lies a little deeper. Alongside the sensor information, the teams are collecting GPS data and assessing wind conditions via mobile weather stations. The key to success lies in how effectively their algorithms are able to synthesize this data to confirm not only the presence of a leak but its precise size and location too.
“Most teams can tell instantly whether there’s a leak,” says Arvind Ravikumar, Stanford’s post-doctoral research fellow and lead scientist in this challenge. “Some are able to fairly accurately and immediately pinpoint its location and dimensions. This test shows us both where the technology is and where it could go.”
The technologists are wrapping up for the day. Fire retardant overalls are shed, drones, tablets and joysticks, carefully packed away. There is an air of optimism and friendly competition.
Says Passaretti: “The purpose is research and development — but of course we all want to know how our results compare!”
Alongside providing an important leap forward for industry, Stanford’s report, due later this year, will give Passaretti and others, their answer. Rarely has business resilience and climate action been so much fun.