Low power greenhouse gas sensors for unmanned aerial vehicles

Amir Khan, David Schaefer, Lei Tao, David J. Miller, Kang Sun, Mark Andrew Zondlo, William A. Harrison, Bryan Roscoe, David J. Lary

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Scopus citations


We demonstrate compact, low power, lightweight laser-based sensors for measuring trace gas species in the atmosphere designed specifically for electronic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platforms. The sensors utilize non-intrusive optical sensing techniques to measure atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations with unprecedented vertical and horizontal resolution (~1 m) within the planetary boundary layer. The sensors are developed to measure greenhouse gas species including carbon dioxide, water vapor and methane in the atmosphere. Key innovations are the coupling of very low power vertical cavity surface emitting lasers (VCSELs) to low power drive electronics and sensitive multi-harmonic wavelength modulation spectroscopic techniques. The overall mass of each sensor is between 1-2 kg including batteries and each one consumes less than 2 W of electrical power. In the initial field testing, the sensors flew successfully onboard a T-Rex Align 700E robotic helicopter and showed a precision of 1% or less for all three trace gas species. The sensors are battery operated and capable of fully automated operation for long periods of time in diverse sensing environments. Laser-based trace gas sensors for UAVs allow for high spatial mapping of local greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmospheric boundary layer where land/atmosphere fluxes occur. The high-precision sensors, coupled to the ease-of-deployment and cost effectiveness of UAVs, provide unprecedented measurement capabilities that are not possible with existing satellite-based and suborbital aircraft platforms.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1355-1368
Number of pages14
JournalRemote Sensing
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


  • Absorption and wavelength modulation spectroscopy
  • Air pollution monitoring
  • Greenhouse gases
  • Laser sensors
  • Spectrometers and spectroscopic instrumentation
  • UAV trace gas sensor
  • Vertical cavity surface emitting lasers (VCSELs)


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