The NIST drone in action above Boulder.
The NIST drone in action above Boulder.
Courtesy of NIST

This Drone Could Solve the Front Range's Air Pollution Problem

Colorado has a problem with air pollution. The mix of traffic, oil and gas development and coal-fired power plants contribute to high ozone levels on the Front Range that exceed the air-quality standards set by the EPA and potentially put people at risk for diseases like asthma.

The challenge of making Colorado's air fresh again hasn't gone unnoticed by scientists at the Boulder-based National Institute of Standards and Technology, who have unveiled an innovation in air-quality measurement to see how dirty our air really is.

NIST, which is most famous as the creator of the atomic clock, has combined lasers and a drone to build a system that can measure pollutants from as far as a mile away. Whereas older measurement systems require doing laps around a large area in a plane or taking measurements from a car at specific locations like an oil and gas well, NIST's new system is quick, accurate and comprehensive, says researcher Kevin Cossel.

A laser from a telescope beams toward a drone hundreds of feet in the air, which "refracts" different wavelengths of light from the laser beam, similar to how a prism splits a beam of light into various colors. The different wavelengths can then be used to indicate whether pollutants like methane and carbon dioxide are in the air.

Cossel says that the technology could be used to give Coloradans better information on contentious issues like oil and gas development. "Specifically on oil and gas, it is our hope that all involved parties have a better handle on the emissions," he says. "It is interesting as a potential system for [oil and gas] companies to more effectively monitor and then to check on their emissions."

Jim Burrus, a spokesman for NIST, says that the drone has not been patented and is not in use yet, but could be buzzing the skies of the Front Range in the next few years. Its applications are still up in the air (no pun intended), but it could be used to monitor air quality around factories, interstate highways, and specific sites like spills of industrial waste, in addition to oil and gas wells.

For six years in a row, the Front Range has failed to meet the air-quality requirements set forth by the EPA in 2008, which requires the study of pollution sources and the implementation of reduction plans.

In addition to cars and lawnmowers, the oil and gas industry has been charged as a source of pollutants, particularly methane, on the Front Range. In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the country to regulate leaks of methane — a greenhouse gas with 25 times the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide — from oil and gas operations.

But methane leaks from oil and gas wells are common in areas like Weld County, which had over 23,000 active wells in June. In 2015, researchers from the AirWaterGas group, a collaboration of CU Boulder, the Colorado School of Mines and other research institutions, found that methane emissions in the Front Range region were three times as high as previously believed.

If the 2008 EPA standards are not met next year, the state's air-quality status could be changed to "serious," according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, which could bring stricter state regulations.

As with other federal research labs, including the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, NIST typically develops technologies and makes them open to the public. The drone could be used by other government agencies, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, private companies and curious civilians.

"We have really smart people here doing amazing science," Burrus says.

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