High-tech eye for leak detection

Methane leak detection with drones

The Southwest Research Institute has equipped drones with specialized cameras and developed an AI algorithm for these cameras in order for drones to detect methane gas leaks in real time and autonomously. Since methane gas is odorless as well as invisible to the human eye, the smart camera offers a very welcome high-tech eye for leak detection.
^ High-tech eye for leak detection

Article by Jolanda Heunen


Pipelines and gas compressor stations are the fields where the aerial drones that are developed by the Southwest Research Institute would typically hover over. Equipped with midwave infrared cameras (MWIR) the drones are able to detect methane leaks with SwRI’s Smart LEak Detection System (or SLED) that uses computer vision and machine learning.

This marks a new era in leak detection and depending on several factors - including distance from the leak - under optimal conditions, it can detect 5 scfh leaks. In a video interview that was posted by the company on Youtube, Maria Araujo, Manager of R&D with the Southwest Research Institute, tells about what the drones specifically are capable of, how they are developed, and what her hopes for the future are.

This particular technology is developed for the US department of Energy with the focus of the project being on developing a methane detection technology to ultimately find gas leaks – in this case particularly methane – autonomously and in real time. The team uses a specialized camera for the drones to collect the data. This is an infra-red camera which is more specifically called an ‘optical gas imager’.

In addition an Artificial Intelligence algorithm was developed. This enables the drone to detect small amounts of emissions that normally can’t be ‘seen’ with just the camera. The sensing capability is enhanced with the AI algorithm. And when the drone detects methane, it will send an alarm with the specific location of where the gas was detected.

“In addition, an Artifi cial Intelligence algorithm was developed. This enables the drone to detect small amounts of emissions that normally can’t be seen with just the camera.“

The Southwest Research Institute hopes that in the next decade the technology will be embraced at a large scale. They are currently already working towards commercializing the technology and hope to one day see the drones flying, inspecting facilities and finding the leaks that go undetected today.

Source: Youtube / SwRI


The Southwest Research Institute (headquartered in San Antonio, Texas) consists of R&D problem solvers providing independent services to government and industry clients. They aim at pushing the boundaries of science and technology to develop innovative solutions in order to advance the state of the art and improve human health and safety. Their multidisciplinary nature allows them to rapidly assemble diverse teams to tackle problems from multiple directions.


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