By Chip Buchanan
LIVERMORE — It came from outer space — to bring safety to your street.
PG&E recently hosted a demonstration of new drone technology at its training facility in Livermore. A group of engineers tested a methane gas sensor that was first developed to help look for life on Mars. Now the company plans to use it to look for tiny leaks in its natural gas pipelines.
It may sound futuristic, but it isn’t science fiction. The project, which has been in development for two years, began through a partnership with PG&E, NASA and UC Merced. Lance Christensen, scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, said it could yield benefits not only for the company but the entire industry.
“We have been working with PG&E and other energy companies to utilize the technology here on earth for public safety, pollution reduction, climate change science,” said Christensen.
The engineers fitted a prototype sensor to a quad-copter drone that probes for gas leaks in a simulated neighborhood. The remotely piloted vehicle is able to fly and maneuver into areas that would otherwise be hard to reach in ground-based surveys.
The sensor is 1,000 times more sensitive than most commercially available leak detection devices gas companies currently use.
“Having a facility like this one here helps us debug, helps us understand the science,” Christensen said. “One of the technical challenges is decreasing the weight but still maintaining its sensitivity.“
PG&E’s Francois Rongere, who manages research and development for gas operations, believes the technology will soon be taking off across the company’s 70,000 mile service area.
“We are at the point now we can actually use it in a configuration, which is very close to a neighborhood,” said Rongere. “We are testing different leaks — several leaks — they are able to fly around the perimeter and locate the leak very rapidly.”
The drone tool is only the latest safety technology PG&E is helping to develop. In 2016, the company invested $1.85 billion in gas system improvements and remains committed to innovate for safety — right here on Planet Earth.
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