A West Virginia University researcher has designed a system allowing Marcellus Shale wells to be monitored from the convenience of an office computer.

Michael McCawley, interim chair of the Department of Environmental Health in the WVU School of Public Health, has developed remote monitoring modules that can wirelessly transmit air quality 24 hours a day. The transmitters are designed to monitor remote drilling locations, which would ensure drilling sites can comply with environmental regulations, even in isolated areas.

"We wanted a system where we could send information back to a central location, or even the Internet, and be able to check all of our monitors remotely," McCawley said.

The remoteness of some drilling sites has caused problems in monitoring pollutants, McCawley said.

"A lot of the drill rigs are sitting out in the middle of nowhere, and it can be hard to get power to a system," he said.

The transmitters McCawley has developed are the size of a deck of cards and powered by a car battery, which recharges with power provided by solar panels. He said similar systems can be seen alongside the interstate.

"They're doing it for traffic flow monitoring, we're doing it for air monitoring," he said.

The systems will also help industries monitor their systems and more effectively respond to malfunctions.

"If we have a system of these set up, the industry can have better control over what it's doing. Nobody wants a gas leak. It hurts bottom lines, the environment, and people's health," McCawley said.

These air monitoring systems could also improve industry relations with nearby communities, he said.

"A lot of industries get a bad name because people think they're polluting, whether they are or not. For better community relations, they could conceivably put this information online themselves for people to see," McCawley said. "If you open up this process, and communicate with the towns where you have these drills, people may feel a lot better about what's going on. It engenders trust. Everybody will win."

McCawley has been monitoring air quality and its effect on populations for more than three decades, from the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 to the Kuwaiti Oil Fires of 1991. Advancements in technology have given him the opportunity to address issues close to home, he said, including the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling.

The monitors are small enough to be carried in a suitcase and can be accessed anywhere cellphone service is available. If a receiver cannot get cellphone service, several modules can be linked together wirelessly to a central location.

When the project began five years ago, McCawley said he didn't foresee such advanced wireless capability.

"We were hoping to transmit information one kilometer, and now we can transmit 28," he said. "Technology has just been evolving so these wireless transmitters have become the standard."

The modules have just finished development and are being field tested. McCawley said he plans to present them at conferences, where industry professionals can see them in action.

"People running the operation could watch, and see what's happening in their operation in real time, and possibly adjust what's going on or detect when there are leaks," he said. "The applications are endless."