Tech Innovation

Beyond Air Pollution: Smart Cities Offer a Breath of Fresh Air

smart cities

New hyperlocal air quality monitoring technologies help people find ways to breathe easier.

When a layer of smog blankets an entire city, many people assume that the whole city is polluted. But that’s not always the case. Whether it’s rampant ragweed or a spewing factory, the air might be polluted on one block and breathable a few streets over.

Seven million people die prematurely from health risks every year because of air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. A study found that poor air quality is a byproduct of unsustainable policies in transportation, energy, industry and waste management in the world’s most crowded cities.

Current air quality monitoring (AQM) stations take air samples from just a few places throughout a city and then create a citywide air quality index (AQI). These limited number of AQM stations can’t provide an actionable level of detail down to the city block.

But new systems based on Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and electrochemical sensors are changing how pollution is tracked. New air quality monitoring technologies analyze pollution, pollen and toxins on a street-by-street basis, providing real-time data by time and location.

Getting accurate, up-to-date information about air quality in polluted cities such as Los Angeles, Beijing and New Delhi can make a difference for people living with lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

If people know that the air is highly polluted in an area, they can take action such as wearing a breathing mask, traveling a different route to work, altering vacation plans or even staying home.

“People might say, ‘I’m not going to travel there today and expose myself to that substance,’” said Dr. Catherine Grossman, associate professor of internal medicine and pulmonary disease at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

“People planning vacations might decide ‘I want to go to Nashville or Louisville but that’s a bad area for my specific condition. Instead, I’ll go somewhere else.’”

Outdated Monitoring Systems

Accurate pollution reports are critical, but current monitoring systems are too big to be portable or scalable, don’t pinpoint pollution at the source and can’t report real-time data, said Mahesh Chikodi, global leader at Robert Bosch Engineering.

By the time city authorities get air pollution data, two to four hours may have gone by and the air quality may have changed.

“What’s the use of knowing air quality hours later?” Chikodi said.

To make things worse, people often decide to wear an air filter mask based on data coming from 20 miles away, said Suman Sehra, business manager for Intel’s Smart Cities Business Development and segment manager for Intel’s Environmental Monitoring business.

“When air quality is so bad that people have to wear masks,” said Sehra, “they want to know what the air is like where they are, not where they aren’t.”

A Breath of Fresh Air

New air quality monitoring systems measure particulate matter (PM), pollen, chemical pollution and other toxins by city block rather than by large regions covered by current citywide AQI measures. These new systems also measure pollution in parts per billion (ppb) compared to parts per million (ppm) used by older technology.

Bosch’s Micro-Climate Monitoring System
Using smart sensors, Bosch’s Micro-Climate Monitoring System measures air quality.

Instead of waiting hours, the data is available in seconds, Chikodi said. For instance, Bosch’s Micro-Climate Monitoring System (MCMS) measures air quality by gathering information via connected “smart” sensors with faster data transfer.

These new generation tools collect hyperlocal data that can provide people with block-by-block information so they can map their routes and activities outside.

For example, the new system can suggest users take I-5 to work in Los Angeles instead of I-405, hike at Eisenhower Park instead of Comanche Lookout Park in San Antonio, or wear a mask in Manhattan but not in Brooklyn.

New air quality systems are spreading around the world. Bosch’s MCMS is used in New Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world. In Oakland, California, researchers equipped Google Street View vehicles with a fast response pollution measuring platform for a study earlier this year. And in Chicago, a citywide network of sensors mounted on lampposts was developed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory to monitor a variety of pollutants.

Additional monitoring stations can give a spatial context that is not possible by the limited count of traditional AQM stations. This added sensing capability can now pinpoint high pollution areas using real-time air quality alerts.

That means city planners, factory owners, construction foremen and other professionals can make more informed decisions on how to protect the health of workers, reduce emissions and meet clean air guidelines. Even event planners can use air quality trends to help schedule outdoor activities.

Traditional AQM stations can cost up to $200,000, making them difficult to scale. Bosch’s new MCMS stations cost up to 20 times less, making it much more affordable for cities to install several such stations throughout the city.

city graphic

Ongoing operating costs also are less expensive because engineers can monitor the sensors remotely as opposed to traveling to each site, Chikodi said.

A Smarter Way to Live

In addition to smart air quality sensors, smart cities uses real-time data, the (IoT), and information and communications technology to improve urban infrastructure and services.

These technologies include smart transportation, smart lighting, parking data apps to find available parking spots and smart energy metering. Smart air quality monitoring systems can work together, for example, with smart transportation systems to improve air quality by optimizing traffic flow in a congested corridor of a town or city, said Sehra.

“If I’m a city planner, I can use this data and optimize the traffic flow within the city,” Sehra said. For example, traffic signals could be switched from red to green to limit emissions from idling cars in specific areas where there’s more pollution.

City authorities also could reroute traffic away from polluted areas, send an alert asking drivers to switch from gasoline to electric power and encourage people to use public transportation, Chikodi said.

The pinpoint accuracy of smart air quality monitoring systems ensures that cities can closely track pollutants emitted by industrial companies, Chikodi said. Then appropriate abatement actions can be taken to improve overall air quality.

“If you know the cause, you can take action,” Chikodi said. “Anything we are able to measure, we can improve.”

Hyperlocal monitoring improves overall air quality, one street at a time. And that’s a breath of fresh air for everyone.

 

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