Take-off for Drone-based gas leak detection

Bill Chen

July 22, 2021


Bill Chen

Local Division Manager, Measurement & Analytics Singapore 



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Methane emissions are a major focus of the Paris Agreement to control climate change. The oil and gas industry is under pressure to find ways to cut methane leaks from gas pipelines both to improve safety and to reduce the environmental impact. Drone-based analyzer systems offer an accurate and highly effective solution. We ask why drones?

What has led to the development of gas leak detection technologies?

The gas distributed in pipeline networks that criss-cross the globe is naturally odourless. The addition of mercaptan means that it can be detected by smell, however if left undetected gas leaks can lead to fires or explosions. For safety reasons companies responsible for gas distribution are working hard to detect and locate leaks so that they can be fixed.

Alongside the risk of fire or explosion, methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas (GHG) in our atmosphere and is around 84 times more potent than CO2 in its first 20 years. The Paris Agreement was put in place to control climate change and all 195 signatories recognize that methane is a major contributor and must be controlled. A 2021 report by the International Energy Agency found that around 70Mt of methane gas escaped from gas pipelines in 2020 alone.

Countries around the world are putting in place increasingly strict legislation to try and contain the problem. This in turn is putting pressure on oil and gas companies that are responsible for the gas distribution network to take actions and find and fix leaks fast. The countries with the largest natural gas reserves are Russia, Iran, Qatar, Turkmenistan and the United States.

Where are the pipelines?

Gas pipeline networks traverse thousands of kilometres and a variety of terrains. They continue to be the safest and most economical way of transporting natural gas. Being used for power generation and for domestic use the network crosses built-up areas, deserts, fields and conservation areas. The variety of terrain has traditionally represented a major challenge for pipeline operators for tracking gas leaks.

How does ABB Ability Gas Leak detection system work?

The OA-ICOS method is the analytical engine at the heart of the complete ecosystem for natural gas leak detection:

  • HoverGuard™ (drone-based)
  • MobileGaurd™ (vehicle-mounted)
  • MicroGuard™ (hand-held)
  • EverGuard™ (stationary)

The method has a sensitivity more than 1,000 times higher than conventional leak detection technologies and enables us to distinguish quickly and reliably between naturally-occurring methane – from livestock or landfills, for example – and gases leaking from a buried pipe or other potentially dangerous source. 

In addition to continuously measuring methane and ethane, the hardware keeps track of wind velocity and position. Proprietary software incorporates these measurements and visualizes data on Google Earth maps using algorithms to provide surveyors with the data they need to reliably and quickly locate leaks. The solutions can generate and share digital reports in real-time on a user-controlled and secure Cloud server and, most importantly, continuously maintain rigorous cyber security protocols. The field data and comprehensive reports generated allow crews to intelligently prioritize resources and repairs.

How is the Gas Leak detection system being deployed?

ABB’s channel partner, ZICOM is the first local service partner in the South Asia region for ABB Ability Mobile Gas Leak Detection solutions. Headquartered in Singapore with regional offices in Australia, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Indonesia, ZICOM has partnered with ABB to introduce and offer the car-mounted MobileGuard solutions to detect leaks in the Chittagong and its hill tract area in Bangladesh. Their services have been commissioned by an oil company in Bangladesh to detect leaks in these densely populated areas to ensure safety. Rashed Choudhury, Managing Director of ZICOM said "The performance of the unit is very good and has increased the speed at which we are able to detect and locate leaks for our client. We use the MobileGuard at night to avoid heavy traffic in the built-up areas, to speed up our service and to reduce the effect of vehicles run on compressed natural gas having an impact on results. We use MicroGuard to determine the precise location of any leak."

How can drones help?

Another innovative solution to address these drawbacks is the use of mobile gas leak detection on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drones, which are fitted with powerful miniaturized gas analyzers capable of detecting variations in ambient methane gas concentrations – normally about 2ppm – with a precision of parts per billion (ppb).

ABB has recently launched HoverGuard which relies on the proven ABB OA-ICOS technology and detects, quantifies and maps leaks up to 100 meters from natural gas distribution and transmission pipelines, gathering lines, storage facilities, and other potential sources quickly, safely and reliably. ZICOM added “We are keen to explore the speed of inspection in both built up areas such as Chittagong and the remote terrain of the hills surrounding the city. Maintaining a safe distribution network is of prime importance to our customer.“

The cloud-connected, multi-gas solution is actually the first UAV-based system to quantify the three most important greenhouse gases methane, carbon dioxide and water vapor continuously while flying.

Is gas leak detection by drone more effective than foot patrols?

Where drones offer a particular advantage is in situations where a human operator either cannot or should not be present. In terms of gas detection, this can include locations that are either difficult to access or which are inherently unsafe, including hazardous locations where explosive or toxic gases may be present, or where structures may be potentially unsafe. They can also offer an advantage where a holistic overview of a site may be required, with the ability to travel much faster than a human operator on foot and the ability to access areas that would not otherwise be possible with a vehicle-based system.

Drone deployment can help not just in the urban jungles of Bangladesh and other cityscapes across the region, but also across desert landscapes such as those in Saudi Arabia where gas is distributed for domestic use and across large open expanses to big chemical processing plants.

Extra advantages can be achieved by using measurements taken by the drone in conjunction with specific location-based measurements by localized sensors, helping to pinpoint not just the location of a potential gas leak but also more specific information such as the duration and even potential cause of the leak. Drones are today used on well pads, bridges and other difficult to access locations to support safety inspections. Covering large areas whilst moving at speed, UAV solutions such as ABB’s HoverGuard provide fast and highly accurate identification for potential leakage points with low cost and guarantee of safety.

Will the solution take off?

With industries across all sectors under growing pressure to reduce the environmental and societal impact of their operations, the use of the latest emissions measurement technologies is becoming increasingly important.

The OA-ICOS based analyzers are a proven option that combine advancements in measurement and digital technologies to offer highly accurate measurement solutions that are increasingly easy to use and integrate.

ABB offers an extensive range to help industrial operators measure greenhouse gas concentrations and a variety of different industrial gases in order to meet the relevant regulatory and environmental standards.

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