An environmental technician puts on his boots, straps on his instruments and begins the day-long trek through the landfill. He’s searching for methane, a greenhouse gas found in landfills that is 21 times more potent than other greenhouse gases.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landfills account for 16% of U.S. emissions of methane. Once per quarter, technicians walk through nearly 2000 sites across the U.S. to find and prevent fugitive methane emissions. This manual and time-intensive process is the only EPA-approved method of to assess surface emissions.
But that may change. Michigan-based company Sniffer Robotics, a “technology as a service” company, developed a drone-based system that can fly over landfills five times faster than a person can walk them. The drone precisely inspects a typical landfill in a day. The drone has a closed-loop methane gas detector mounted on it with an air collection hose that extends to the ground surface to collect near-ground air samples. These samples are measured on board.
The engineers at Sniffer Robotics experienced a few challenges developing the drone. “We initially didn’t have quality hardware designed properly for the application,” said David Barron, co-founder and CTO at Sniffer Robotics. “We cobbled together parts that sometimes fell off during test flights, and we probably would have crashed our drone because hardware issues kept cropping up.
That’s when the development team turned to Protolabs. The decision was made to see what stereolithography could deliver for four types of custom-made parts for the drones. The components were manufactured using a polycarbonate-like plastic, which brings accuracy and durability as well as a clear cosmetic appearance.
The results impressed Protolabs to the point where Sniffer Robotics was awarded the Cool Idea Award. “Thanks to this grant, we were able to accelerate our hardware process ahead of schedule and quickly develop a reliable, high-quality product to demo to prospective customers,” said Barron.
Now, Sniffer Robotics is on an expedited path to meet EPA regulations and anticipates achieving compliance soon. In the future, Sniffer Robotics plans to make its system available to customers as a service to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of landfill gas emissions management.
“Sniffer Robotics work will help identify areas for emissions reductions, which will ultimately protect the environment,” said Vicki Holt, President & CEO of Protolabs. “We’re thrilled to work with Sniffer Robotics to help optimize their hardware and solve for this existing technology gap.”
Listen in as David Barron tells the story behind this design.