Natural gas pipelines span throughout the world and inspecting them may seem to be a never-ending job. NASA scientists developed a new technology to help detect and locate methane gas leaks on Earth - through a miniature Mars drone.

Originally designed for testing the Martian atmosphere, the quadcopter is equipped with a smaller version of a methane gas sensor, called the Open Path Laser Spectrometer (OPLS). NASA said that the sensitivity of the device makes it possible to monitor several miles of pipeline at a time from the air.

Successful Flight Test

The space agency scientists have successfully flight-tested the drone which was developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The team worked with UC Merced's Mechatronics, Embedded Systems and Automation (MESA) Lab. They performed initial tests flights in late February.

The team tested the device at the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve in central California. The flight test aimed to show the efficacy and accuracy of the system in a controlled setting.

"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.

Drones are used at present to reach areas and places that humans and other vehicles can't reach. Aside from being cost-effective, it can provide an enhanced vertical access that could extend the use of methane-inspection technology.

These devices can reach even remote or rural areas where natural-gas transmission pipelines are located.

Methane Gas Leaks

On Mars, signs of methane gas could signal biological activity but on Earth, it could be a sign of an impending danger-in-waiting. Methane is a very strong and robust greenhouse gas that carries 84 times the warming power of carbon dioxide.

Methane gas leaks are very common and have become a problem across countries. In Oct. 23, 2015, a massive natural gas leak happened at a storage well near Los Angeles, California. The leak was only contained in mid-February.

The leaks do not just happen in big oil facilities but also in small neighborhoods. Gas leaks happen because companies fail to monitor and maintain infrastructures. Without standards imposed by the federal government, the leaks will continue to be a national problem putting the health and lives of people at risk. 

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