Drone-assisted lasers pinpoint harmful gas leaks, attracting NSF funding

Written by
Scott Lyon
April 16, 2024

The National Science Foundation has announced support for a Princeton project to detect, measure and map harmful gas leaks in 3D using advanced lasers and specialized reflectors mounted on drones.

The project, led by Gerard Wysocki, an expert in laser-based spectroscopic systems, will improve the environmental monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions and toxic air pollution around cities or industrial facilities and provide new tools for rapidly assessing disaster sites, such as last year’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

By mapping plumes of gas in fine detail, the drone-laser platform would be able to pinpoint the source of gas leaks and reveal how they are mixing and moving through space over time, enabling more confident action steps to remediate problems. Current methods are comparatively clunky, relying on handheld infrared cameras that are insensitive to small leaks or more robust methods that require complicated equipment and advanced planning. The key to the new technology is in leveraging finely tuned quantum cascade laser frequency combs that operate at room temperature without consuming massive amounts of energy. Those lasers can identify specific chemicals quickly and with very high spatial accuracy.

Project collaborator Mark Zondlo has called this laser-based mapping approach “the holy grail of leak detection.”

In addition to Wysocki, professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Zondlo, professor of civil and environmental engineering, the project includes atmospheric physics and micrometeorology expert Elie Bou-Zeid, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and robotics expert Jaime Fernández Fisac, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The project stands out not only for its potential to advance environmental monitoring but also for its contribution to STEM education and workforce development in the United States. By integrating fundamental physics, engineering, applied mathematics, and optics, the research offers a unique educational opportunity for students across all levels.