With a new acceptance by federal aviation regulators, the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), or drones, in the energy industry is likely to expand in ways only partially envisioned today, according to a report released Friday by RBN Energy LLC.

While moves by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granting clearances to energy companies (see Daily GPI, May 12) are only preliminary to final rules the agency is working on, recent “FAA liberalizing” comes as potential drone use in the energy sector is “expanding by leaps and bounds,” according to the RBN report by contributor Housley Carr.

The potential appears to be very wide in scope, spanning the industry from exploration/production activities in the oil patch to charting and monitoring the nation’s interstate transmission pipeline network. Carr called the budding technology applications “amazingly high-tech and accurate.”

What the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) developed as a “methane sniffer” for the Mars rover three years ago is now being brought down to earth in a collaboration between Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) and NASA to miniaturize the technology so it can be fitted to a UAS system for unmanned pipeline leak detection work.

As part of its efforts to upgrade its pipeline safety and maintenance programs (see Daily GPI, June 21, 2012), PG&E is working with NASA’s California-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which licenses the technology developed by the space agency programs, on a small sniffer that would detect the smallest of leaks along its 48,000 miles of gas transmission and distribution pipelines.

“If they succeed — and it seems likely they will — expect to see methane-sniffing drones hovering over gas pipelines [everywhere] and over oil/gas production areas,” Carr said.

PG&E is testing a prototype in the field using foot patrols to see how the technology works before deploying a version of the sniffer on drones, a utility spokesperson told NGI. In addition, it is working with researchers at the University of California Merced campus and the gas industry research organization NYSEARCH to determine the feasibility for use of the technology on drones.

“JPL and PG&E have collaborated to adapt the technology to find gas leaks due to the device’s superior sensitivity to methane, a major component of natural gas,” said the PG&E spokesperson, noting the utility originally launched the effort late last year.

“The out-of-this-world technology helps guide PG&E crews using a tablet interface to identify possible leak locations, fast-tracking their ability to repair leaks. Not only is the tool light-weight and easy to use, it is also 1,000 times more sensitive than traditional tools.”

The tool will be a part of PG&E’s comprehensive suite of gas-leak detection technology, which includes leak patrols by foot, by helicopter, by car with super-sensitive, gas sniffing vehicles, and by boat over submerged pipelines. It is expected to be ready to use this year, the spokesperson said.