Pipeline Gas Leak Detection with Drones

Natural gases have a wide range of uses in residential and commercial markets.

Sectors such as manufacturing, heating, transportation, and the generation of electricity all benefit from natural gas production. And, by 2023, North America is projected to be the largest exporter of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG).

The capturing, refinement, and transportation of LNG is big business. LNG is the second most used energy source for industrial applications. In recent years, partly thanks to climate change concerns, LNG is gaining on the number-one energy source, coal.

As with any process, there is an inherent loss that occurs in production. Some losses are intentional, while others are due to malfunctions and failures in equipment.

Recent studies show that, in the United States, methane leaks in the oil and gas industry estimate a 2.3 percent loss annually. That translates to 13 million metric tons of methane each year.

Detecting leaks is of vital importance for fiscal and environmental concerns. Let’s break down traditional methods, and why using drones to detect gas leaks is a better alternative.

Traditional Gas Leak Detection Methods

Detecting gas leaks is a challenging and complex problem.

Industrial facilities are full of numerous failure points where gas can potentially leak. An even more significant challenge is identifying leak points along endless miles of pipelines.

Finding the location of a gas leak requires a team of inspectors who utilize an array of detectors and monitoring equipment.

There are three common types of detectors used to search for gas leaks.

  • Fixed detectors are mounted sensors within a facility or along a pipeline. They are placed at high-risk spots, such as valves. These devices are set to alert personnel when a leak occurs.
  • Automatic detectors are usually robotic and can roam around a facility looking for leaks. These detectors are in their infancy. Hard-to-reach areas of a plant can be accessed by these robots, but they have limited use outside their specific area of operation.
  • Portable detectors are carried by members of inspection teams and use a wide range of sensors to detect possible gas leaks. While they are useful, these detectors often place people in dangerous or toxic environments.

Drone-Based Gas Leak Detection

Traditional gas leak detection methods have been beneficial in industrial applications.

However, they are not always an ideal solution to the problem. These methods often lack efficiency and place people in harm’s way.

Drone inspections identify areas of dead vegetation as an indication of an established leak. While helicopters are used to achieve the same results, they’re extremely expensive and noisy. Drones also provide less disruptive inspection of routes, often through complex areas, where the traditional “walk the route” method has various complications.  

A prime example of this is the detection of gas leaks along miles of pipeline expanding across the wilderness. As you may have already guessed, having an inspection team hike across the forest with a handheld detector is inefficient and dangerous.

Drone-based leak detection is the latest innovation to address both the safety and efficiency issues present in traditional methods.

UAVs are also excellent platforms for detecting gas leaks in remote areas. Several manufacturers have already developed payloads for gas leak detection.

One such manufacturer is Oregon based FLIR. The company manufactures the FLIR G300 Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) camera, which can detect small leaks several meters away and larger leaks hundreds of meters away.

Other payloads used in gas leak detection include LiDAR and thermal cameras.

In this new gas leak detection method, a UAV pilot may be assigned to check for leaks along a section of an oil and gas company’s pipeline. The entire mission can be carefully planned out and developed into a preprogrammed flight plan.

After takeoff, the UAV can survey the area and collect data on possible leaks. Either on board the drone or at a base station, this data can be processed and analyzed. A report can then be generated and identify any leaks present in the area.

Thanks to UAVs’ advanced features, these reports provide actionable data that can both save money and help protect the environment. Drones collect survey level data that can accurately pinpoint the leak’s location and even provide information on the estimated leak rate and type of gas.

Additionally, drone inspections are much faster and far more accurate than those performed by inspection teams using handheld devices. They’re also highly cost-effective compared to using a crewed aircraft, such as a helicopter, to detect leaks. 

Furthermore, in industrial facilities, the drone method can be repeated to detect leaks in structures high off the ground, eliminating the need to put people at risk .

Bringing It All Together

As with many other applications across various industries, drones are advancing gas leak detection.

The improved efficiencies of UAV platforms make them ideal for tackling a necessary task that expose people to dangerous conditions.

At Consortiq, our skilled, experienced remote pilots perform all types of drone inspections, including gas leak detection. Are you interested in exploring the benefits of drone technology?

From training your pilots and developing you program, to hiring us to do the work for you, we’re here to help you find a better way to accomplish your goals! Contact us today by completing the form below, and let’s get started!

Picture of David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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