IoT Helps in the Battle to Spare the Air

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All we need is the (clean) air that we breathe. However, the World Health Organization estimates that 92 percent of the world’s population doesn’t have access to clean air. This results not only in health problems, but has an economic impact, as air pollution was responsible for almost $225 billion in lost productivity in 2013, according to a study by World Bank.

Fortunately, IoT technology is breathing new life into air quality measurement. IoT solutions are coming to market that can automatically gather real-time air quality data by neighborhood and push it to the cloud, where monitoring systems can break down the data and deliver easy-to-understand analytics. Armed with precision air quality data, city managers can do effective traffic planning and commercial and residential zoning. And urban dwellers can use the data to decide whether to do that morning jog, take the metro or bike to work, or simply stay inside, if air quality levels are in the danger zone.

Mobile Air Quality Mapping

One new air quality measurement system was put to work recently in Oakland, CA. A multi-group initiative conducted by Google Earth Outreach, San Francisco-based tech firm Aclima, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and engineers at the University of Texas at Austin, the mobile air quality mapping project gathered air pollution data in Oakland from May 2015 to May 2016.

Two Google Street View (SV) vehicles equipped with Aclima’s mobile sensing platform measured black carbon, nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide on the streets of Oakland. (Those three chemicals are often associated with health and respiratory problems, such as asthma.) The Google SV cars were deployed to areas of Oakland where there are also three stationary, regulatory-grade, air-quality monitors. The system collected 2.7 million data points as the cars drove more than 14,000 miles in 150 days.   

In June, the team released the results of the project in an article, High-Resolution Air Quality Mapping with Google Street View Cars: Exploiting Big Data. “We were really surprised by seeing just how variable air pollution is within our cities," said Joshua Apte, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who worked on the project. The mobile sensors collected data every 100 feet and found pollution levels that varied block-to-block. Higher levels of pollution were found near businesses such as cement plants, restaurants and auto body shops as well as the busy Port of Oakland, where trucks tend to idle while waiting on payloads from cargo ships.

The study demonstrated the value of IoT in measuring air quality. Aclima provided a scalable approach to cost-effective, high-resolution, air quality measurement that helped identify dozens of local pollution hotspots in Oakland. That information can help city leaders better understand the impact of pollution on human health and the environment. In the coming months, Aclima and Google plan to release more maps and insights from air quality data collected in Los Angeles, California’s Central Valley and other parts of the San Francisco Bay Area.

Air Quality Analysis

While gathering air quality data is the first step in fighting air pollution, another critical piece is analyzing the automated measurements. Sameer Sharma, general manager of new market development for IoT Solutions at Intel, reports that Intel has worked with Bosch on its Air Quality Micro Climate Monitoring System (MCMS), which is an end-to-end solution that collects air quality information across large areas.

MCMS is powered by the Intel® IoT Platform, Wind River® Helix Device Cloud for edge device lifecycle management and a hardened end-to-end security solution. The solution features cloud-based analytics, data management and visualization software. It has a serviceable, user-friendly design that is closely aligned with EPA standards and built-in security. 

While these types of measurement and analysis systems in the past have been cost prohibitive ($150,000 to $250,000 for a single unit), the Bosch MCMS is smaller and can be deployed at a fraction of the cost of previous systems. Sharma notes that it can be deployed throughout a city or industrial zone, “radically increasing the precision of air quality data.” And as the Oakland study proved, having granular neighborhood data is critical, as disparities in traffic, population density and industrial activity can mean drastically different levels of pollution across a city.

Intel Bosch Air Quality Micro Climate Monitoring System

Photo: Intel/Bosch Air Quality Micro Climate Monitoring System

Sharma adds that IoT systems will change the nature of city life. “If we integrated an air quality monitoring system with a smart traffic network, we could detect traffic jams with high levels of air pollution as motors idle. It would be possible to redirect the flow of traffic, or instruct drivers to turn off engines as they wait.”

Aclima has similar ambitions: to make the data gathered from its environmental sensors useful and ubiquitous. “Our hope is that one day environmental and air quality information is as accessible to residents as weather data,” says Davida Herzl, co-found and CEO of Aclima. If that happens, we will all be able to breathe a little bit easier. 

Deploying Solutions for Better Air

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