How UAVs May Save the Environment

May 23, 2019

There’s an elephant in the room for the modern-day natural gas industry: carbon emissions from natural gas operations are higher than what we think.

According to a 2018 study published by Environmental Science & Technology on over 1,000 U.S. production sites, total emissions are actually 2.3 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimates.

Tighter regulations could help, but it does not provide a reliable, tangible, and more importantly, sustainable solution to pollution. The better answer is to improve the technology used in natural gas production.

Air sampling using UAVs

Currently one of the most effective ways of monitoring the air – hence emissions – is through unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also widely known as drones.

Some drones currently being used in the industry have remote sensors that can monitor more than 50 different chemicals from as high as 125 metres above ground. Data collected from air samples may include chemical composition, temperature, humidity, etc.

What’s more impressive with drones is that operators can now take direct samples and make accurate measurements without the need for source sampling, a step up from the traditional sampling methods.

Operators can also stay far away from hazardous gas sources, improving onsite safety. Data from UAV sensors are simply transmitted to an operator’s tablet for real-time viewing and analysis.

Drone technology may just be the most effective and convenient solution to a longstanding environmental problem in the natural gas sector.

Government stepping up

So, instead of imposing tougher controls and ignoring the obvious problem with natural gas operations, the public sector should devote resources into the research and development of such technologies. The good news is that governments at different levels have recognized this and are starting to back projects that could make a difference.

Last spring Geoscience BC launched a demonstration project called GHGMap, which uses low-flying drones to map greenhouse gas emissions from production sites in northeastern BC. The project, which has the backings of the federal government, uses a tool developed by NASA called laser spectrometer to detect methane and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Recently the Canadian government also invested $325,000 to the Mining Association of Canada for a climate change adaptation project.

Regardless of the outcome of these pilot projects, one thing is clear: governments have started taking initiative in reducing the carbon footprint in our energy sector. Now it’s time for the industry to step up as well.