Google uses its Street View cars to sniff out gas leaks in US cities

Trundling along the streets of Boston, Staten Island, and Indianapolis in recent months, Google’s Street View cars haven’t just been collecting panoramic imagery.

Fitted with methane sensors, the cars have also been sniffing out natural gas leaks, a hazard that affects many cities across the US and beyond.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) linked up with Google Earth Outreach to conduct the pilot project, with three Street View cars gathering 15 million readings throughout the three locations.

‘Thousands’ of leaks

The initiative turned up “thousands” of leaks from utility pipes beneath the streets, providing officials with data on pollution “that used to be invisible,” EDF’s Fred Krupp wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

The data has been added to maps, which you can view here. You’ll see that Boston, an older city with older pipes, was found to have the most leaks, while Indianapolis, with newer pipes, only had a few. Staten Island was somewhere in between in terms of the number of located leaks.


Fortunately these leaks don’t pose any immediate threat to safety, and the utilities will monitor and deal with the more serious ones. However, EDF noted that such gas “has a powerful effect on the global climate, packing up to 120 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide.”

“It’s urgent that we plug these leaks to reduce near-term climate impacts,” Krupp said.

While in days gone by specialized and expensive equipment was needed to carry out the task of pinpointing incidences of environmental pollution, Krupp said that “a convergence of tech trends – inexpensive sensors, cloud computing and data analysis, and social media – is transforming environmental protection by giving people and organizations like Environmental Defense Fund the ability to collect and analyze huge amounts of information, then publish results for all to see.”

It certainly makes excellent sense to utilize Google’s cars in this way and is a far cry from the kind of data-collecting shenanigans the vehicles once got up to on their travels.

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