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Methane Drones

April 22, 2016

Could NASA technology for methane detection on Mars help find gas leaks on earth?


UC Merced Drone crop

A methane gas sensor attached to a drone. (University of California. Merced)


Methane spotters from Mars. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

On other planets, the presence of methane might indicate the presence of life. That’s one reason scientists developed a super-sensitive instrument called the Open Path Laser Spectrometer, or OPLS, to look for methane on Mars. Now scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory have brought the technology down to Earth to help find methane leaks in pipelines. Lance Christensen is leading the effort.

LANCE CHRISTENSEN (Jet Propulsion Laboratory):

Because they’re small, they can be deployed on small aerial robots and that gives us this flexibility of, you know, a 24/7 operating, relatively low cost monitoring network.


The technology was recently tested successfully in southern California. Christensen says beyond looking for natural gas leaks, the sensors could help scientists better understand changes in methane levels and the gas’s distribution in Earth’s atmosphere. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.