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Satish Kumar and his graduate research team at UC Santa Barbara’s Vision Research Lab have led the charge in developing an AI-based methane detection tool called MethaneMapper

This first-of-its-kind software can spot methane gas via complex algorithms. The algorithms analyze multiple visual spectrums of images taken from custom-built cameras 10,000 feet aboveground.

“We made a tool to detect methane because methane is a very dangerous gas when it comes to global warming,” Kumar said. “Thirty percent of global warming is caused by methane.”

Climate change continues to be a large public concern that a majority of Americans say the government should address more effectively, according to a 2023 poll. With this existential threat in mind, Kumar and fellow graduate researchers decided to zero in on one particularly destructive greenhouse gas.

“The amount of damage carbon dioxide will do in 100 years, methane can do that in 1.2 years,” Kumar explained. “It’s that dangerous and that good at trapping heat.”

The Vision Research Lab studies and develops image-processing technology using artificial intelligence and machine learning. Current lab projects include developing satellite imagery, identifying animals in the wild, and medical imaging dealing with brain scans. 

The MethaneMapper project itself took more than three years of development with a four-person team, going through two generations of graduate researchers. It was recently recognized at the 2023 Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition conference as one of the top works in its field.

Accurate measurements of methane are the first step to addressing this harmful greenhouse gas, according to Kumar. Being able to monitor methane emissions coming from oil and gas refineries can be a great help for governmental regulations, fines, and penalties. 

The team plans to release the source code of the MethaneMapper tool for free, allowing any organizations to use the algorithm as they wish.

“The effects of that could be seen in places like Texas, where there are 86,000 oil extraction points. All of them are emitting methane. The Texas government is looking into ways to at least monitor those,” Kumar said. “We could give it [MethaneMapper] to the government for free so they could actually test it out to try and penalize oil- and gas- producing companies.”

Kumar says that this project could even be used by oil and gas companies themselves to monitor emissions in the future.


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