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Home Alumni Alumni News SAIT and NASA team up

SAIT and NASA team up

Five students are working with SAIT researchers and faculty to help NASA test UAVs for carrying its methane
scanner over sites that hand-held and ground sensors can’t access.

Five students are working with SAIT researchers and faculty to help NASA test UAVs for carrying its methane scanner over sites that hand-held and ground sensors can't access. Left to right: student Cara Genis, Dr. Ken Whitehead with ARIS, student Shaun Hofman, School of Construction instructors Shahab Moeini and Azzeddine Oudjehane, students Joseph Mathieu and Sidney Sheppard. Editor's note: student Stephanie Lapointe was unable to attend this photo shoot.

SAIT has joined forces with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in a novel research project that combines the unique capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs - commonly known as drones) with the methane detecting capabilities of NASA's Open Path Laser Spectrometer (OPLS). 

M200 UAV used for exploring new ways of detecting methane gas emissions

Originally developed for use on Mars, the OPLS has also proven effective in detecting molecules of methane in Earth's air. And, with both federal and provincial plans in the works for carbon pricing, Dr. Ken Whitehead of SAIT's Applied Research and Innovation Services (ARIS) says there is demand from oil and gas companies for technology to effectively quantify methane emissions at their facilities.

"By mounting the OPLS on a UAV, we're able to access and test areas that hand-held methane scanners or ground vehicles can't," says Whitehead, a UAV mapping and applications specialist and Research Associate at ARIS's Centre for Innovation and Research in Unmanned Systems (CIRUS). The CIRUS lab is housed in the state-of-the-art Aldred Centre — the largest of the three buildings that make up the Trades and Technology Complex.

Applied learning brings results

Design and testing of the sensor mounting system was coordinated by Shahab Moeini of SAIT's School of Construction. He enlisted five students from the Bachelor of Science Construction Project Management program and their solution preserves the flying capabilities of the UAV while maximizing performance for the OPLS sensor.

"We didn't really know if our design was going to work until we got it to the site," says third-year student Cara Genis, who has been involved in the project. "We were all really happy when it did."

The project is currently in its first phase, which involves test flights at an Alberta oil and gas facility. Results to date are promising. In Phase Two, researchers hope to expand their program to cover a range of production facilities with varying emissions characteristics and to identify optimal weather conditions. Researchers are also amending project software to make it more user-friendly. Dr. Lance Christensen of NASA/JPL says the project has been an exciting one and he is hopeful as to where it may lead.

"SAIT combines excellent technical capabilities in small unmanned aerial systems with a comprehensive understanding of the energy industry and emission regulations so that these capabilities can be used in an efficient and productive manner."

As for Genis, the hands-on experience has been invaluable.

"In a classroom, I'd think of things one way. Now, I have this whole new level of knowledge I can bring to classroom discussions,"
she says.

Written by Kathryn Kazoleas | Photo by Trudie Lee

link magazine spring 2018 issue

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