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How one UH professor is configuring a drone to detect methane leaks

10/23/2017 | By Claire Andersen

While the rest of the University of Houston’s students and faculty were trying to beat the August heat, professor Bob Talbot was in Fort Collins, Co. watching a drone bob and weave across a mock oil production site on a mission to locate methane leaks. The drone is the center of Talbot’s biggest active project, an initiative from the Department of Energy’s Small Business Innovation Research Program to create a device that can autonomously detect and quantify fugitive methane leaks. 

UH is a subcontractor along with Princeton University on the project headed by Physical Sciences Inc. Nine other teams from across the country have created their own devices and participated in the same simulation testing. The project has lasted nearly three years and will come to its conclusion in June. 

The system designed by Talbot’s team revolves around a drone fixed with a sophisticated GPS system and lasers that scan an area for methane plumes. The drone was originally designed for the military, but has been adapted as a sophisticated scientific tool. A laser fixed to the drone measures a 10-meter column of the atmosphere, and collaborates with the GPS to pinpoint the location of a leak, usually within just one meter. 

Before flying the drone at Fort Collins test site, it was first piloted in an old firehouse in Hitchcock, TX, where it could fly without causing or picking up any interference. 

“First we were swinging it around on a large boom and had a ground-based leak that we tried to quantify with different software approaches,” Talbot said.

After extensive testing they discovered that flying the drone in a deliberately random pattern, rather than in squares or circles, was most effective. The drone’s lead detecting software was written by one of Talbot’s Ph.D. students, Shuting Yang. Now, nearly two and a half years later, the drone is capable of flying autonomously.

“It sits in what we call a garage, a round pan where it charges. One of the lasers looks down, across the field and if it sees methane plumes going through the laser beam it takes off and goes to find and quantify it,” Talbot said. 

The team will return to Fort Collins for the last round of testing in late spring. The final tests are expected to be especially rigorous, concentrating on the system’s ability to distinguish between true and false leaks. Talbot remains confident that their drone system will withstand the tests and has the potential to be a top finisher. 

“The system is getting pretty mature now, and it’s very sophisticated,” he said. “We have a very sensitive way to look for leaks.” 

As they vie for the top spot in the program, Talbot shares that he hopes the product will be valuable for real-time use by oil and gas companies. 

“We want to develop a really good product, something that works and is affordable,” he said.  “It’s got to be affordable to the industry because they’re going to want a lot of these.”