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Protolabs thinks this methane-sniffing drone is a Cool Idea

Sniffer Robotics methane-sniffing drone
The latest recipient of a Cool Idea award from Protolabs (Maple Plain, MN), Sniffer Robotics (Ann Arbor, MI) has developed a drone that monitors landfill emissions. It brings safety, reliability and accuracy to what historically has been a labor-intensive process.

Sniffer Robotics (Ann Arbor, MI) is the latest recipient of a Cool Idea award from digital manufacturing company Protolabs (Maple Plain, MN) for its landfill emissions monitoring technology. Sniffer Robotics has developed a drone-based approach to landfill health assessment, bringing safety, reliability and accuracy to what historically has been a labor-intensive procedure.

David Barron, co-founder and CTO of Sniffer Robotics, explained to PlasticsToday how the company became acquainted with Protolabs and the stereolithography (SLA) process that helped it to design and build a better, more robust drone. “We cobbled the first drone together with parts obtained from various sources, but sometimes the parts fell off during test flights,” he said. “I’d done some work with Protolabs previously, so I knew of their expertise. Given the fact that our volumes aren’t very high and the parts are small, SLA was a good option to get the robust yet lightweight parts that we needed.”

The 3D-printed drone components are manufactured using a polycarbonate-like polymer that provided accuracy and durability with a translucent matte appearance.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, landfills account for 16% of U.S. emissions of methane, which is 21 times more potent than other greenhouse gases. Once per quarter, at nearly 2,000 sites across the country, environmental technicians walk many miles per day to locate and prevent fugitive methane emissions.

Sniffer Robotics developed its patent-pending drone-based system to improve the efficiency of the monitoring process. The drone covers the same ground five times faster than a human and can precisely inspect a typical landfill in one day, without risk of injury and with higher fidelity data than existing processes. While the current surface emissions monitoring technique is the only method approved by the EPA, Sniffer Robotics is on a fast track to meeting EPA regulations and anticipates achieving compliance soon. In the future, Sniffer plans to make its system available to customers as a service to enhance the accuracy and efficiency of landfill gas emissions management.

Barron noted that ultimately 50 to 100 drones would be enough to cover nearly every landfill in the United States. The company currently has two drones in use for EPA testing.

“Sniffer Robotics is addressing the need to more accurately measure fugitive methane emissions at landfills,” said Vicki Holt, President and CEO of Protolabs. “Their work will help identify areas for emissions reduction, which will ultimately protect the environment. We’re thrilled to work with Sniffer Robotics to help optimize their hardware and solve this existing technology gap.”

The Protolabs panel of judges distribute up to $250,000 in manufacturing services to worthy inventors and entrepreneurs each year through the Cool Idea initiative. Thus far, the program has awarded more than $1 million in manufacturing services.

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