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This Methane-Detecting Robot Will Patrol Our Smelly Landfills

Methane rising from our decomposing garbage is a huge problem. But it’s hard to track the leaks so that we can fix them. Sounds like a job for the new GasBot.

Methane, the potent, second largest source of man-made greenhouse gas, doesn’t just come from cow farts. A third of anthropogenic methane produced in the U.S. wafts up from landfills, the result of all the bacteria breaking down garbage without oxygen.

In addition to being highly flammable, methane gas from landfills can also generate energy if captured properly. Unfortunately, methane capture is a fairly tricky endeavor that has relied on human labor, which is why Gasbot, a methane-sniffing robot from Sweden’s Orebro University, may represent a promising opportunity for climate change mitigation. IEEE Spectrum reports that Gasbot, armed with twin laser scanners, GPS, and a remote gas sensor, has been tested in a former landfill and already has been able to locate a leaking gas pipe in an underground tunnel:

In both cases, Gasbot was successful, but there’s still a bunch of work to be done before it’ll be able to take over from humans. Specifically, it needs to get better at localizing, it has to be able to robustly traverse obstacles like you might find in a real landfill, and it also needs to be able to operate over a several square kilometer area by itself over the course of days or weeks.

Still, as ThinkProgress also points out, an army of methane-detecting robots put to use for energy conversion won’t fully solve the environmental problems of dumping garbage into earth containers in the first place. In 2010, a Sierra Club task force found that landfill-gas-to-energy facilities actually increased rogue methane emissions, and that "the relatively small CO2 reduction benefit that might be achieved by replacing fossil fuel electricity with LFGTE electricity is greatly outweighed by the increase in fugitive methane emissions resulting from altered landfill management practices."

There’s also a continuous blast of anthropogenic greenhouse gases from the United States that hardly need robot lasers in order to spot them. North Dakota and Montana’s natural gas flares, which burn millions of cubic feet of methane into carbon dioxide daily, can be seen from space. Researchers have also found evidence of pure methane, which traps heat nearly 25 times as much as CO2, escaping unburned from drilling sites. Send in the robots.