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Methane sensor
A JPL mini methane gas sensor is flight tested on a small unmanned aerial system (sUAS) under a project to improve energy pipeline industry safety. The sensor enables methane detection with higher sensitivity than previously available for the industry in hand-carried or sUAS-deployable instruments. Credits: University of California, Merced

NASA Tests Small Drone-like Methane Sensor for Use on Mars

NASA researchers have developed a mini drone-like methane sensor that can fly and successfully tested it on a Vertical Take-off and Landing like any small unmanned aerial system (sUAS). The sensor, developed by JPL for use on Mars, will be used to detect methane with much higher sensitivity than previously available.

The tests were conducted in central California at the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve, in partnership with Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI). The jointly conducted test of NASA’s Open Path Laser Spectrometer (OPLS) sensor also helps to detect methane in parts per billion by volume could help the pipeline industry more accurately pinpoint small methane leaks.

“These tests mark the latest chapter in the development of what we believe will eventually be a universal methane monitoring system for detecting fugitive natural-gas emissions and contributing to studies of climate change,” said Lance Christensen, OPLS principal investigator at JPL.

Researchers from JPL and the Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation (MESA) Lab at the University of California, Merced, conducted the flight tests in late February. They flew a small unmanned aerial system equipped with the OPLS sensor at various distances from methane-emitting gas sources. Tests were done in a controlled setting to test the accuracy and robustness of the system, said NASA.

Next stage of testing later this year will feature a fixed-wing UAS, which can fly longer and farther so as to monitor natural-gas transmission pipeline systems, which are often hundreds of miles long and can be located in rural or remote areas.

A JPL mini methane gas sensor is flight tested on a small unmanned aerial

A JPL mini methane gas sensor is flight tested on a small unmanned aerial vehicle. (NASA)

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