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Robot kites take flight to keep emissions in sight

15 March 2024

A new project will see autonomous robots flying kites to monitor greenhouse gas emissions.

New devices that can monitor gas emissions – and which way the wind is blowing them – will be built at the University of Surrey, thanks to a £620,000 grant. 

The team will build new, lightweight wireless gas sensors. These will be attached to helium kites and flown by an autonomous robot. Researchers hope the new devices will be able to monitor emissions. 

"If the world is to reach net zero, we need to be able to check that emissions really are reducing,” explained Dr Robert Siddall, Lecturer in Robotics.
 
 “Previous projects tried to use drones to monitor gas flux – but the quality of their measurements wasn't good, their flight time was too short, and airspace restrictions limited their use.
 
“Our robot balloon towers, kitted out with sensors and built here at Surrey, should solve many of these challenges.”

The team will work with several local businesses. University spin-out company Surrey Sensors Ltd will build the sensors, while Hampshire's Allsopp Helikites Ltd will provide the helium balloons. 

This complex project will combine a range of skills from across the University – from fluid dynamics to building robots, analysing data and sensing emissions. 

The technology will be tested in a variety of locations – including Thames Water treatment works, the University’s land at Blackwell Farm Guildford, and rice paddies in Spain. 

“The UK water sector faces huge challenges in achieving net zero. One of the biggest issues is that wastewater treatment systems produce methane and nitrous oxide. These have a much greater warming potential than carbon dioxide,” said Dr Bing Guo, Senior Lecturer in Civil and Environmental Engineering.
 
“We don't have an accurate and affordable way to monitor these emissions. Our project will create innovative tools for the industry to achieve net zero.”

The Spanish rice paddy project will benefit from the remote sensing support of Mantle Labs Ltd, and Eurecat Centre Tecnològic, Spain. 

“Rice farming is one of the main methane emitters worldwide and farmers can access financial incentives for implementing emission reduction practices,” commented Dr Belen Marti-Cardona, Associate Professor (Reader) in Earth Observation and Hydrology
 
“We are currently using satellite images to monitor whether these practices are being implemented around the world, and using simulation models to estimate the emission reductions achieved.
 
“This project will allow us to take ground measurements of the actual emissions, which are very much needed to calibrate and verify our estimates.”

This is one of 13 projects nationwide to be funded by a £12m investment from UKRI's Natural Environment Research Council, Defra and Innovate UK.

The research will support UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 13 (climate action).   


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