Natural gas leaked out of a PG&E pipeline in San Bruno, CA, killing an unknown number. Clearly the Buried Natural Gas infrastructure is beginning to age. Only UAV's can reasonably fly low enough in neighborhoods to create a map of NG concentration. I heard on NPR that PG&E flies airplanes to inspect gaslines, but clearly not low or often enough.

Given that Methane sensors are light, cheap and readily available:


It's conceivable that Amateur UAV's could fly a pattern and log Methane levels against a GPS coordinate.

(Does anyone else think this could be a viable task for UAVs? and Why not propose a T3 contest in which mapping methane is the objective?)

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  • @Gerry,
    1984 had a point, but it missed the mark - Most of the spying in the world is done by private people - cameras in their own house, companies like Megan Whitman spying on their employees; the barrier to a spook-state isn't technology, it's sheer ability to process the information. Legitimate governments will always have fiscal constraints and will focus their lens on significant crime. Think about how many crimes an officer might see in a day and just ignore? Jaywalking? Rolling stop? Again, if they were to drag every crime through the courts, it would bring society down, Then their democracy- don't expect to get a lot of votes from people you've arrested for petty infractions. So I'm just suggesting that the limits on a police State are sufficiently structural such that quad-copters to detect one's self from leaking gas pipes and faulty bridges, bad power lines etc... is hardly the last outpost to oblivion?
  • And so the slippery slope begins.(Which isn't to say I'm opposed to the idea.)

    Once these public safety applications get UAVs flying regular patrols:(which I believe is going to happen) it's only a matter of time until they begin to be outfitted with cameras and used for law enforcement.

    Is that a bad thing? Depends on who you ask I guess.
  • Certainly Chris has a wonderful notion; i've thought there are several other uses for swarms of cellphones (triangulating gunshots ie.) Sadly these sensors are a big bigger than phones, and have some power requirements (they're a heater), but all things being equal - I agree they could be shrunk.

    The whole point of UAV is to reduce the cost of access to airspace. You've got to ask, what could be done more effectively, if the costs were lower - These pipes are being inspected today by air - just clearly not well, so air is already the preferred vector. Given that the pipes were laid about the same time - they aren't getting any younger. New technologies need a killer app; one had better figure out how to create value in exchange for competing with established CAS users if one wants access.
  • I don't know if a UAS is the proper platform for this sensor. In theory, you would want to deploy a methane sniffing UAS for continual monitoring of long pipelines. That means a large UAS, for long endurance, flying close to the ground. I think it's more dangerous from a probability standpoint to have predators flying at 300 ft over residential neighborhoods than to have high pressure natural gas lines running under them. Now if you were to deployed this sensor in every smart phone sold in the US, you have a distributed sensor network that allows you to locate problems with GPS accuracy. Just have an app running in the background that samples an air quality sensor a few times an hour and transmits alerts if detections are made.
  • A UAV is not very practical. Maybe it would be better for when gas is known to be leaking, but than you can shut down (though that was not done here). There are also issues of dispersion.
  • Better pipeline maintenance and replacement of deteriorating sections would have prevented the accident. Sophisticated monitoring systems are also available but probably not installed - again due to cost. Looking for a $5 solution to the inevitable is not the way...unless you have shares in the gas company!
  • I think it would be more cost effective to just place the sensors on the ground near the pipeline. And in this case you couldn't fly drones in the populated areas where the data would be most needed.
  • Moderator
    Would'nt a robot running through the pipes inspecting them be a better solution??

    There are already utility meter reading wings in Israel.

    Not sure how we could measure something in a similar manor throughout the world. But you have a good point. T3 rounds should become a little more mission specific.

    Perhaps the competition should be to create a sensor package.
  • A contest where UAVs upload data from a number of sensors on a daily pattern would probably be a pretty good challenge.
  • I think that is an excellent idea for a useful application for uavs
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