Google's Street View cars help detect gas leaks

Google's Street View cars have taken on a new role - instead of Wi-Fi networks, they are put to use to detect gas leaks.

Three Street View cars equipped with specialised sensors capable of detecting methane hyave been deployed in Staten Island, Boston, and Indianapolis, The Verge reported.

The cars took 15 million readings at the locations of old pipe lines and deteriorating infrastructure make leaks more likely. The cars measured one gas leak for every mile they covered in Boston, though the results were much better at other places like Indianopolis.

In addition to climate warming methane leaks can also cause explosions under the right circumstances.

The extra hardware, which also recorded wind data, allowed cars to identify the leak spots with greater accuracy and estimate just how much gas was escaping at each location. The cars went around each city several times to confirm the accuracy of leak reports.

The initiative was jointly undertaken by the Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach, which provides non-profits and public benefit organisations the knowledge and resources they need to visualise their cause and tell their story in Google Earth and Maps to hundreds of millions of people.

The resulting maps were now online for public reference.

Meanwhile, the results announced by the fund yesterday, revealed how common leaks were in highly populated areas that until now had not been quantified, Reuters reported. Leaks in central Boston were discovered every few blocks.

While the leaks were small and apparently not hazardous, they led to concerns about methane whose global warming impact is 20 times greater than carbon dioxide, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The leaks also raised questions about the safety of old pipelines carrying natural gas in growing volumes across North America.

An explosion in a natural gas pipeline, in the New York City neighbourhood of Harlem this March flattened two buildings and killed eight people.

According to the data, from the air analysis systems, there were thousands of leaks in areas like Boston and New York's Staten Island that relied on older, corroded cast iron pipelines, however in Indianapolis, where newer, plastic pipes had been installed, almost no leaks were detected.

"Until now, these smaller leaks have not been a priority in most places. Yet we can see from these maps just how much they can add up," Mark Brownstein, EDF chief counsel for natural gas, said in a statement.