Washington State Turns to “Sniffer” Drones to Enhance Landfill Inspections

Tough new federal inspection rules for monitoring landfill methane emissions – a leading source of global warming, according to experts – are forcing a growing number of US states to deploy drones to speed field surveys and reduce inspection costs.  The latest example is Washington State.  On May 13th, the Washington State Department of Ecology released a new methane emission rule for active and closed solid waste landfills that allows for expanded use of UAVs to speed inspections while reducing the cost and safety risk of ground-based surveys.

All affected landfills must meet the tough new inspection requirements starting January 1, 2025.

Washington, like other state jurisdictions as well as the EPA, is planning to contract with Sniffer Robotics, The company chosen for the work, Ann Arbor, MI-based Sniffer Robotics, deploys an unmanned aircraft – dubbed SnifferDRONE – that collects air samples directly at the ground surface and correlates its measurements of methane emissions to latitude and longitude coordinates recorded during flight.  This “hyper-local” solution, as the company calls it, allows authorities to zero in on the source of the leak and to target remediation efforts with precision, reducing wasteful field resources.  The drone can cover multiple potential leak sites in a fraction of the time it would take ground surveyors.

Another key advantage is improved workplace safety.  In an average landfill, a ground surveyor may end up walking about 15 miles and become exposed to a wide array of hazards, from extreme temperatures to steep and uneven terrain and dense vegetation. Surveyors may also encounter dangerous animals, including snakes, rats, wild dogs and even alligators as well as ticks, scorpions. There’s also the ever-present threat of exposure to landfill gasses and other toxic waste that can leave them permanently injured.

Governments aren’t the only entities concerned about methane emissions. Another company, DroneDeploy, is assisting oil and gas concerns to perform their own methane gas emission surveys to comply with new and stricter guidelines from the APA.  Companies in this sector face both “intentional” emissions, which are unavoidable, and about 25% of the total, as well as “fugitive” emissions, the remaining 75%, which can be controlled.  As with landfill inspections, walking these facilities is labor-intensive, costly and potentially dangerous, while drones equipped with thermal cameras can use heat sensors and advanced data analytics to detect and verify a leak and then send out a field team to close it without having to walk the entire site.

Drones can also map an entire facility repeatedly and store and process the visual data and GPS coordinates to detect and model leak patterns over time at the touch of a finger.  With drones it is possible to anticipate problems in the facility – and not just methane leaks but also stress fractures, corrosion, and other issues – long before they become more serious problems.

Currently, drone-based systems are operational in 28 states and at more than 150 landfills. To date, some 16,500 methane leak sources have been identified and at least partially remediated.  But the magnitude of the problem far exceeds the current scope of detection systems.  The solution, experts say, is to expand the scope of aerial surveys and as in Washington State, to make them mandatory.  California, Oregon, and several other states are moving in that direction.  The EPA, with support from the FAA and other agencies, needs to pressure more jurisdictions – and if necessary, pass new regulations — to ensure that landfill and private infrastructure with large-scale methane emissions are better patrolled and their emissions remediated more quickly.  Time is running out.

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