Recent advances in technology have vastly improved our lives’ quality of life––from increased access to transportation to cheaper manufactured goods to reliable power and heat––but these luxuries have not come at a small cost. Air pollution has risen proportionally alongside these amenities. According to the World Health Organization, nine out of ten people breathe air that exceeds guideline limits of pollutants. These pollutants are estimated to kill seven million people worldwide every year and can be difficult to monitor or control. But IoT can help.
Addressing Air Pollution
Here’s the problem: addressing air pollution is complicated. The biggest pollution sources are processes we rely on daily like fuel combustion in our vehicles, heat and power generation, industrial facilities, and waste sites. Living without any of these sounds like an impossible task, and even if you drastically reduce contributors in your own area, under certain conditions, air pollution can travel over the state and even national borders, affecting populations well away from the source. That’s why tackling air pollution requires a high degree of visibility and collaboration across sectors and from the city-level to the national.
But before you can take action to improve air pollution, you have to know exactly how bad it is (and where). Keeping accurate records of air quality over time is vital to know whether or not your efforts are actually paying off. Existing solutions, like the GOES-R and JPSS weather satellites, can monitor large-scale changes in air quality and pollution, but not at the granular level that cities need in order to know that, for example, their carpooling initiative along major highways has been a massive success.
Air Quality Data Collection
Previously, the only alternative was the manual collection of data. Cities would send teams or individuals armed with air monitoring equipment to take samples and measure air quality at various parts of the cities and repeat any time a new dataset was required. This process is extremely costly, time-consuming, and prone to human error. Even if it’s all done perfectly, it can still be challenging to get a clear idea of an entire city’s air quality.
This is where the Internet of Things (IoT) comes in. By utilizing connected air quality sensors, cities can gain instant insight into air quality in specific regions or at specific times, save money on the manual collection of data, and more easily track changes to air quality over time. Cities have several options for air pollution monitoring – either building sensors into existing infrastructure or using mobile sensors to quickly map and track air quality through routes across the city, all without the added cost of manually collecting and monitoring that data.
By building air quality sensors into existing infrastructure, like street lights or benches, cities can take advantage of power sources already at the site. These sensors can instantly communicate air quality readings across the city, without human intervention, or alert stakeholders if an unexpected change occurs, enabling cities to take action quickly. For example, Barcelona, Spain, equipped 1,100 street lamp posts with IoT-enabled air quality sensors and wifi routers as part of its Barcelona Lighting Masterplan, enabling them to gather air quality data and send it back to the city completely autonomously.
Boston, Massachusetts; Boulder, Colorado; Los Angeles, California; and Miami, Florida have all introduced Soofa benches, equipped with solar panels and air quality monitors. As the street lamps in Barcelona, they serve as hubs for smart city connectivity and enable pedestrians to interface with smart city features while constantly testing and delivering air quality data.
While these solutions provide the most transparency into a city’s air quality, the cost can be prohibitive to cities with a tighter budget. Installing sensors throughout an entire city or county can be extremely expensive, whether through existing fixtures, like lamp posts and traffic lights or by placing new structures, like benches.
For cities looking to achieve greater transparency without the cost, mobile sensors can be a better option. Mobile air quality sensors can be attached to municipal fleets, like garbage trucks or buses, to track air quality as they move along their routes. They could even be affixed to smaller vehicles, like bikes or scooters attached to a rideshare program. Because a single sensor could potentially monitor an entire city’s air quality, solutions like these can be much more affordable, drastically reducing the amount of equipment needed. Google Street View cars have been a great example of this, gathering more than 500 million air measurements worldwide to better equip cities with the information necessary to execute effective clean air initiatives.
While this is much more cost-effective, it’s not very efficient. Mobile sensors may not measure air quality in every part of a city and may not revisit areas at effective intervals for monitoring changes.
Whatever the ideal solution for your city, air quality can’t be ignored any longer. With billions of lives affected, cities need to take action now to understand contributors to air quality and to find out what they can do to improve and there’s no better tool to gain that transparency than IoT.