Sniffing Robots in the Oil and Gas Industry

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September 16, 2022


Oil & Gas / Robotics


Sniffing Robots in the Oil and Gas Industry

Even before the smoke detectors, the smell of something burning in the kitchen can stir a person from their sleep. In a similar manner, one of the most distinct qualities of oil and gas is the smell. A robot with the ability to sniff out a leak can have the potential of preventing disaster.

What are Sniffing Robots?

Today, robots are equipped with almost all of the human senses and more, so much so that they are often better at detecting things than humans. Despite these advances, the one sense that robots still lack is the sense of smell.

A robot equipped with the ability to smell can be invaluable on an oil field since it can simply ‘sniff out’ an oil or gas leak. In humans, the sense of smell is essentially a chemical decomposition of the air we breathe. This chemical analysis of the air reveals the particles it contains. For a robot, however, there are ways other than chemical analysis using which it can essentially ‘sniff out’ a leak.

Despite these advancements, sniffing robots are still very much in their research phases and a true smell sensor is still a product of the future.

Optical Methane Detectors

It is required by the Environmental Protection Agency that oil fields and rigs constantly monitor their methane levels and report them. Traditionally this was done by sending an inspection team around the facility to collect the readings using high-tech infrared sensors.

These high-tech infrared sensors were then converted into Optical Methane Detectors. These detectors, when mounted on a rover or a drone, allowing the facility to carry out the checks much more frequently and reliably. An example of this is SMP Robotics’ Gas Leak Inspection Robot. The robot has the ability to cover a large area on wheels with an Optical Methane Detector and many other sensors. It can not only monitor the methane levels for the EPA but also raise an alarm when a gas leak is detected.

These sensors can also be mounted on drones for a similar inspection.

CMU’s Sensabot

Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Engineering Centre has created a rover-based sensing robot that actually performs chemical analysis of the air in order to sniff out’ gas leaks.

Just like SMP Robotics’ Gas Leak Inspection Robot, Carnegie Mellon’s Sensabot is also a 4-wheeled rover loaded with many sensors that can provide a complete inspection of an oil and gas facility. However, the most interesting sensor aboard the Sensabot is the chemical sensor that essentially mimics human smelling by chemical decomposition. This sensor, however, is still evolving in order to identify more scents and increase precision.

Along with the sense of smell, the Sensabot also has 360-degree LADAR vision and a Sensor Boom, which allows the operator to adjust the sensors in whatever direction desirable. Although the Sensabot is not autonomous, it is radio operated. Therefore, it can be controlled from a safe distance.

MIT’s Sniffing Robot

Another way of ‘sniffing out’ a leak if to measure the gradient pressure in a pipe through a bug. Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s mechanical engineering research team is building a sensor that can do just that.

Preventing leaks altogether is theoretically possible, however, when millions of metric tons of oil and gas are being pumped through these pipes every day, it is almost impossible to present a leak. Therefore, the goal behind this project is to be able to detect leaks while they are still fixable. Leaks can be disastrous if left for too long, however, if detected early enough, they can be easily fixed.

MIT’s leak detection robot works with multiple pressure sensors that detect the pressure in a pipe. With these sensors, the robot creates a gradient of pressure throughout the pipe. This way, it is possible to detect cracks that are only a few millimeters long.

Sweden’s Gasbot

The AASS research centre in Sweden has developed a completely new ‘sniffing’ technology that can detect methane gas leaks. The researchers are currently using a laser and a sensor called the Tunable Laser Absorption Spectrometer.

The basis of the idea stems from the fact that methane gas absorbs a certain frequency of laser beams. The robot exploits this idea by shooting laser beams of constantly varying frequency into a 360-degree radius. The Tunable Laser Absorption Spectrometer is then used to measure the laser frequencies coming back. This is how methane gas is detected.
This technology has been tested in underground landfills in Sweden, and it has successfully prevented methane leaks in a large area. In the future, researchers aim to make this technology available for the oil and gas industry as well.


The presence of methane gas in the air is a strong indicator of bacterial life. Therefore, in the search for extraterrestrial life on Mars, NASA created another type of methane detector which is also based on the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS).

One of the scientists working on this project, Andrew Aubrey, realised that this technology can also be used in the oil and gas industry to detect gas leaks. Aubrey left NASA and created SeekOps, a company that creates drones with the TLS mounted on them for inspections of the large oil and gas fields as well as rigs.

NASA’s TLS has the ability to detect even the minutest traces of methane gas with a stunning accuracy of parts per billion. Along with going to Mars aboard the Curiosity rover, this sensor is also helping save lives in oil and gas rigs.

The Future of Sniffing Robots

In terms of advances in sniffing robots in the oil and gas industry, the leading technology as of now is the Tunable Laser Spectrometer developed by NASA. The sense of smell is hard to replicate to the exact accuracy, but with researchers focusing on this novel technology from all over the world, it won’t be very long before robots can truly smell the air just as accurately as humans can.

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