Published: July 18, 2017
A flying UAV in Boulder

Researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the University of Colorado Boulder have demonstrated a new mobile, ground-based system that could scan and map atmospheric gas plumes over kilometer distances.

The system uses an eye-safe laser instrument to send light that “combs” the air to a flying multi-copter and analyzes the colors of light absorbed along the way to identify gas signatures in near-real time.

The “comb and copter” system may be useful to scan for leaks in oil and gas fields, study the mixing of auto emissions and other gases in the boundary between the earth’s surface and the next layer of the atmosphere, or, with planned upgrades, detect pollutants or chemical threats and their sources.

The project brings together NIST with mechanical engineering faculty Greg Rieker and Shalom Ruben as well as Dan Hesselius of Integrated Remote and In Situ Sensing, housed with the Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences.

As described in Optica (link is external), researchers used the comb light to measure carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor—greenhouse gases that heat the atmosphere—along a 2-kilometer (1.24 mile) round trip path between a telescope on a NIST Boulder laboratory roof and a retroreflector mounted on a small, unmanned aircraft. The multi-copter hovered in selected spots to measure gases along a horizontal path and at various altitudes of up to 120 meters (400 feet). Read more at NIST