Non-military drones are growing in popularity with the use by local police departments traffic reporters, and now the oil and gas industry is looking to get into the action. Researchers and industry alike are hard at work developing new technologies to improve methane detection in hydraulic fracturing operations that are compatible with drones. Many corporations currently use varied forms of aircraft, such helicopters and satellites, equipped with laser sensors or infrared cameras to detect methane. Lighter, less expensive, faster, and more sensitive sensors currently in development are making the use of drones more appealing.
Researchers like those at Colorado State University are working on cavity ring-down spectroscopy (CRDS) sensors which can not only provide real-time measurements, but also discern between oil and gas derived leaks and those from biological sources such as cattle. These CRDS sensors measure frequently (1 Hertz), making them ideal for moving measurements such as those done by a drone. Coupled with small sensors at ground level, the drones could be used not only to detect leaks but to create a three dimensional model of methane plumes.
As methane emissions become increasingly regulated (Colorado has already established limits from oil and gas sources and more states are expected to follow), the case for monitoring methane at hydraulic fracturing sites grows. Methane, which exists in abundance in oil shale reserves can escape from nearly every stage of the process. Though outdated inefficient equipment are a major source of leakage, a significant amount of methane escapes from the shale reserves through the drill hole where it is then either flared or released directly to the atmosphere. Monitoring and regulating these releases of methane, which is thirty times more potent in trapping heat than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, could have a significant influence on the contribution of fracking sites to climate change.