Pollution and IoT - using technology to clean our air
Green IT

Pollution and IoT - using technology to clean our air

The issue of air quality is an ever-growing problem for cities across the world. World Health Organisation (WHO) research states that 91 per cent of people live in places where the air pollution exceeds recommended limits and every year 4.2m deaths are caused by ambient (outdoor) air pollution.

Many cities have already begun to implement ‘green' projects to help improve their air quality; for example, investing in infrastructure such as electric vehicle charging points. Another technology playing an important role in cleaning our air is the Internet of Things (IoT).

Along with utilising data streams from satellites, weather stations and governmental monitoring stations, measurements are now being taken by a swathe of new small, low-cost devices that have been developed as a result of advances in sensor, IoT and comms technology.

"Many local authorities already have networks of automatic monitoring stations in place based on IoT technology to capture data from various points to assess air quality," says Manish Jethwa, chief technology officer at software company Yotta. "Sensors can be installed on street lights - above the reach of vandals but low enough to measure the air people are breathing," he notes.

Data gathering

Using technologies such as machine learning, the data gathered can then be analysed to better understand the causes and locations of air pollution in order to take improved action to reduce pollutants and protect citizens' health.

Recording detailed air quality data is an important place to start and IoT is helping to improve this. Projects are currently underway across the UK, including one in Bradford and Birmingham, where air quality is being recorded on modular sensors and sent to BT data hubs for analysis at Bradford Council and the University of Birmingham.

Another example comes from the Smart Cambridge project, where software firm Geospock has been able to accurately predict air quality levels on Gonville Place, a main road in the city, at specific times on a Friday and Saturday.

"As part of the Smart Cambridge project, GeoSpock has analysed hourly vehicle counts, as well as congestion, pressure, temperature and humidity measurements. This information can then be used to investigate sustainable methods of optimising the city to ease traffic and people flow," says Felix Sanchez-Garcia, lead data scientist.

"AI-powered platforms and algorithms process and compare billions of pollutant concentrations in millions of geographical points around the world, every hour, building live, personalised forecast models for air quality. It is the data aggregation, statistical analysis and the ability to serve up the data in ways that non-technical users can understand that's IoT's key contribution, affording massive scale and accuracy down to the city block," says Nick Sacke, head of IoT and products at Comms365.

Actionable insights

By collecting data more often at more points, it's possible to gain a much better understanding of air pollution in real time, but it's even more important to turn this data into actionable results.

One way of doing this is by monitoring not just the air but also the vehicles on our roads. In Uppsala, Sweden, the GreenIoT project is monitoring air pollution in realtime through wireless sensors on public transportation.

"Through the sensor data, which is made available for government agencies, they're able to control traffic and make informed city planning decisions, such as rerouting traffic away from highly polluted areas," says Sacke.

Dynamic traffic forecasting is a fast-emerging technology, based on IoT technology, one that smart cities can leverage to combat high emission levels, continues Jethwa. "The approach connects assets and devices to improve mobility across cities, thereby helping to reduce the time vehicles are on the road and to minimise emissions."

He goes on to highlight other ways IoT can be used to reduce pollutants being put into our air.

"Sensors at parking spots could collect real-time data on parking availability and can be transmitted across networks, linking with end-user and local authority devices. Traffic control cameras could be connected to the transport authority in real-time, enabling them to increase the frequency and duration of green lights depending on road conditions," he adds.

People power

Drivers can also use the power of IoT themselves to improve air quality in their local area. As an added bonus, doing so can also save them money.

Exeter City Futures, a city council supported initiative aimed at improving sustainability with technology recently teamed up with engine telematics provider, Ashwoods Lightfoot, on a pilot programme to curb vehicle emissions and optimise engine efficiency. The city recruited 100 citizens to use a small telematics device in their cars for eight weeks. This was used to continuously monitor engine performance and identify the ‘sweet spot' where power and efficiency was optimised and driving performance safest.

"Following a two-month trial, the result was an increase in overall vehicle efficiency of around 16 per cent, with an equivalent savings in fuel consumption and reductions in harmful CO2 emissions," notes Manfred Kube, head of m2m (machine-to-machine) segment and director business development mHealth (mobile health) at digital security firm Gemalto.

IoT as an enabler - there's more to come

As IoT technology continues to both evolve and reduce in price, Manx Technology Group's founder, Joe Hughes, predicts further exciting applications of the technology including "dynamic emission zones, route maps and navigational aids that include air quality as a factor when selecting a route. The possibilities are endless," he says.

But the good news is that many cities and towns have already taken the first steps in using IoT to fight the problem of air pollution.

"Ultimately, it is an understanding of the sources of pollution, causes and fluctuations, and the effective harnessing of data sources and platforms that will enable cities to better control air pollution and effectively curb climate change - outcomes that IoT can enable," Sacke concludes.

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Keri Allan

Keri Allan is a freelance journalist and editor who has been covering the engineering and technology sector for over 15 years, writing for titles including E&T Magazine, The Engineer and Arabian Computer News.

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