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Google is Mapping the invisible: Street View cars add air pollution sensors

Google Environment: “There are 1.3 million miles of natural gas distribution pipelines in the U.S. These pipelines exist pretty much everywhere that people do, and when they leak, the escaping methane — the main ingredient in natural gas — is a potent greenhouse gas, with 84 times the short-term warming effect of carbon dioxide. These leaks can be time-consuming to identify and measure using existing technologies. Utilities are required by law to quickly fix any leaks that are deemed a safety threat, but thousands of others can — and often do — go on leaking for months or years. To help gas utilities, regulators, and others understand the scale of the challenge and help prioritize the most cost-effective solutions, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) worked with Joe von Fischer, a scientist at Colorado State University, to develop technology to detect and measure methane concentrations from a moving vehicle. Initial tests were promising, and EDF decided to expand the effort to more locations. That’s when the organization reached out to Google. The project needed to scale, and we had the infrastructure to make it happen: computing power, secure data storage, and, most important, a fleet of Street View cars. These vehicles, equipped with high-precision GPS, were already driving around pretty much everywhere, capturing 360-degree photos for Google Maps; maybe they could measure methane while they were at it. The hypothesis, says Karin Tuxen-Bettman of Google Earth Outreach, was that “we had the potential to turn our Street View fleet into an environmental sensing platform. Street View cars make at least 2 trips around a given area in order to capture good air quality data. An intake tube on the front bumper collects air samples, which are then processed by a methane analyzer2 in the trunk. Finally, the data is sent to the Google Cloud for analysis and integration into a map showing the size and location of methane leaks. Since the trial began in 2012, EDF has built methane maps for 11 cities and found more than 5,500 leaks. The results range from one leak for every mile driven (sorry, Bostonians) to one every 200 miles (congrats, Indianapolis, for replacing all those corrosive steel and iron pipes with plastic)…”

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