When Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast of Texas earlier this year, there was no mistaking the storm’s destructive power.
Images of flooded freeways, entire neighborhoods underwater, and mountains of debris painted a vivid picture of the extent of the devastation.
But not all impacts of the storm could be seen with the naked eye. Buried underground, natural gas pipelines threatened by Harvey posed a difficult — and potentially deadly — challenge during the recovery. So area utilities turned to a cutting-edge “eye in the sky” developed with support from the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E).
The solution: a laser-equipped quadcopter drone that sniffs out leaks of methane, the primary component of natural gas. Developed by a team led by Physical Sciences Inc., the Remote Methane Leak Detector Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (RMLD-UAV) can sweep over large areas reading tiny changes in the laser’s beam to determine the presence and quantity of the invisible gas.
The project team co-developer, Heath Consultants Inc., was invited to test the pioneering device at two sites in Texas that were heavily damaged by the powerful storm — one in Port Aransas and another in Beaumont. The RMLD-UAV was used to survey gas lines, some submerged beneath a river, allowing utilities to ensure the integrity of this important infrastructure rapidly and without putting response crews at risk.
Funded under the ARPA-E program MONITOR (short for Methane Observation Networks with Innovative Technology to Obtain Reductions), the RMLD-UAV is one of several projects focused on reducing wasteful methane leaks in natural gas production. From the wellhead to the household burner, MONITOR project teams are building systems that can detect, locate and measure fugitive methane emissions sensitively and cost-effectively, helping to ensure we use this resource as efficiently as possible while keeping workers safe and reducing emissions.
Other MONITOR projects focus on small, distributed methane sensors that can be deployed anywhere, on almost anything. At the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), researchers are using carbon nanotubes to build high-precision, printable gas-sensing technologies, reducing cost, increasing manufacturability and improving spatial coverage. A project team at the University of Colorado Boulder installed a detection system atop a standard truck trailer, where it can identify leaks across multiple drilling sites at once, miles apart, for fast and efficient operation.
Programs like MONITOR showcase how ARPA-E’s scientists and technical experts support early-stage, advanced energy technologies that boost U.S. energy security, keep the country competitive, and protect the environment. From cutting-edge battery designs, to biofuels made from seaweed, to natural-gas-hybrid generators, ARPA-E awardees are unique because they are developing entirely new ways to generate, store, and use energy.
As for the RMLD-UAV, its flight over Harvey-affected Texas was just a test run — but it could soon be patrolling the skies over natural gas facilities and disaster areas, protecting human health and reducing costs in the process. By supporting the next generation of transformative energy technologies, ARPA-E continues to drive innovation in how we power our lives. When these developments ripple out into other critical areas like worker safety, the benefits are even greater.
Learn about ARPA-E’s entire project portfolio here.