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Methane Leak Detection with a Drone: Proof of Concept

Integrated Systems
June 7, 2024

SPH Engineering Team recently completed a highly complex proof of concept project near Houston, TX, utilizing drone technology to detect methane leaks along a gas pipeline. The task, conducted in collaboration with Gulf Coast Helicopters, showcased the capabilities of the Laser Falcon methane detector mounted on a DJI M350 drone. This case study highlights the challenges faced, the innovative solutions employed, and the successful outcomes achieved.

Background

The primary objective was to scan a gas pipeline for methane leaks. Traditionally, this pipeline is monitored using a helicopter. However, due to the hazardous nature of the airspace—filled with wires and tensioners at various altitudes, angles, and directions—a manned aircraft inspection was not realistic. A drone was the only airborne solution capable of inspecting this project section.

Execution

To tackle the challenges, we equipped the DJI M350 drone with the SPH Engineering Skyhub onboard computer and Laser Falcon methane detector and planned the flight using UgCS software. Our expert drone pilot, Dylan Owens, was at the site, ensuring precise execution of the mission.

The total area covered during the survey with the drone was 10.5 acres, and the pipeline inspection covered a distance of 2.68 kilometers (1.66 miles). The operation was divided into six flight plans to maintain a line of sight with the drone. The total flight time to complete all plans was 95 minutes.

Outcome

A small controlled leak was used to test the Laser Falcon methane detector sensor, which was successfully detected. No additional methane leaks were found in the project area, ensuring the safety and air quality of pipeline neighbors. KML files provided detailed project data, including spikes indicating methane presence, with numerical values correlating to the PPM/m (parts per million per meter) detected by the Falcon sensor.

Detailed view of controlled leak area. Software: UgCS 5.0.
Overall view of all six flight plans. Software: UgCS 5.0

Conclusion

This project successfully demonstrated the potential of drone-based technology for complex inspections of methane leaks in hazardous environments. Despite the challenging conditions, the DJI M350 drone, equipped with advanced technology and piloted by an experienced operator, completed the mission without any incidents.

Dylan Owens, SPH Engineering Drone Pilot, said: It was the most complex airspace I've ever flown, with wires and tensioners at all altitudes, angles, and directions. However, the DJI M350 and Laser Falcon methane detector performed exceptionally, proving that even the most challenging environments can be surveyed safely and effectively with the right technology.

View of individual methane detections near known controlled leak. Google Earth.
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