Inspection Drones Detect Unmarked Gas Wells for PA Highway Project

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Drones may soon be saving money and lives in Pennsylvania by locating abandoned – potentially dangerous – gas wells.

US Aerial Video Inc. (UAV) recently finished a six-month proof-of-concept project for the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission in partnership with the National Energy Technology Laboratory.

Using a magnetometer attached to a drone, technicians located several abandoned and unmarked gas wells across a swathe of southwestern Pennsylvania. Locating such potential trouble spots is good news for the Turnpike Commission as it plans to develop a highway through the wooded area.

With some more than a century old, abandoned wells can run thousands of feet deep and may be otherwise undetectable by conventional methods.

“The drone surveyed the ground surface and detected wells by sensing perturbation with the earth’s magnetic field caused by vertical steel well casing. That allowed us to map the wells prior to the contractor randomly discovering them – saving the project money,” Ken Heirendt, Geo-Technical Engineering Manager of the PA Turnpike Commission, said.

The drone project collected more than 125-line miles of data over five regions along the proposed corridor. In one half-mile square grid alone, the drone found 41 potential targets – five of which turned out to be unmarked gas wells.

“During this project, we were challenged by many facets of integrating these technologies,” Luke Wylie, COO of US Aerial Video, said. He added:

“In addition to overcoming the hardware challenges, we had to develop complex flight procedures to successfully collect actionable magnetic data in the rugged areas in which we were operating, all while complying with FAA regulations governing drone use. We are pleased that we were able to identify dozens of abandoned wells during this project. We’re confident this airborne magnetometer technology is poised to be a game changer for many industries such as earthworks, mineral exploration, utilities, asset recovery and more.”

Detecting dangerous gas is just another day on the job for drone tech. Last year, Martin Instrument and Microdrones released a UAS methane detection solution, the mdTector1000 CH4. In 2016, San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric Company announced a test project to use drones for methane leak detection across the utility’s 70,000-square-mile service area.


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