Can IoT help us tackle air pollution?

Air quality is a major issue for us all. Shockingly, almost everyone living in a city in the European Union is breathing air that is harmful to their health, according to a recent report by the European Environment Agency (EEA). The Internet of Things (IoT), however, may provide the answer to controlling air pollution and curbing climate change.

Air pollution is a growing problem. Vehicle traffic and smog from industrial plants and households and aviation contribute significantly to air quality. By 2040, CO2 and NOx emissions from aviation are expected to increase by at least 21 percent and 16 percent, respectively, according to the EEA. But there are also natural occurrences, such as forest fires that contribute to global warming.

Air pollution is now the fourth biggest killer in the world after smoking, high blood pressure and bad diet, contributing to more than six million deaths a year, claims World Economic Forum statistics. Ninety percent of children are breathing in polluted air across the world daily, leading to a dramatic increase in respiratory issues such as asthma. The big worry is that air quality may deteriorate even further, thanks to increasing urbanization.

According to the United Nations, 55 percent of the world lives in urban areas. This is projected to hit 68 percent by 2050. This means more cars, more congestion and more industrial hotspots unless drastic action is taken. This is exactly why urban leaders and planners are looking to re-think the city experience around technology, specifically IoT, to make urban living a healthier and safer experience.

No time to lose

Around 98 percent of people in European cities are living with exposure to ozone levels way above the World Health Organization’s recommendation. Bad ozone is generated by fumes from transport and the burning of coal. A huge amount of effort is going into reducing emissions and developing cleaner fuels. The car industry, for example, is promoting electric vehicles. Some cities have already announced car-free plans. Oslo is banning all cars from its city center next year. Madrid plans to do the same by 2020. But, much more needs to be done if we are to protect the health of future generations.

European ministers are working hard on “clean, safe and affordable mobility,” dubbed the “green deal,” to firstly transform transportation. But this will take time. IoT is an inexpensive solution that can help right now.

The big attraction of IoT is that it can provide an overarching approach to air pollution, helping to better understand the problem, identifying ways to build stronger links between regulatory stakeholders, city counsels and citizens. Investing in IoT solutions to monitor air quality also has financial benefits for governments and city administrators. Cleaner air means less budget spent on air pollution-related health problems, for example. It can help local governments with urban planning and transport routes to reduce pollution in hotspots.

Unlike traditional fixed monitoring stations, which are limited in numbers in urban areas due to their acquisition and maintenance costs, IoT is a far less expensive option. Advances in technology have resulted in small, low cost, mobile-enabled sensors that can be scattered across cities from street furniture to bicycles and public transport, providing a broader picture of air quality levels in near real time for faster decision making, such as altering traffic routes in certain weather conditions. This data can be analyzed to highlight causes and fluctuations in air pollution. It can be made publicly available via apps, giving citizens a clear understanding of the pollution levels they are living with – and how they can help reduce them.

Measuring pollutants

While IoT solutions will not initially replace fixed monitoring stations, the ease of their deployment can provide some important benefits, including early indicators of high pollution zones. Air quality monitoring solutions help cities more efficiently connect their infrastructure, addressing concerns such as health, and joining the dots between regulatory stakeholders and citizens so they can all work together to improve air quality.

Data can be collected via sensors from a number of points across a city, be they static on a building or moving on a taxi. IoT devices that can operate on low power wide area (LPWA) networks have an advantage in that they can handle data coming from each individual air monitor, reducing battery power during transmission and overall costs. It’s possible to run projects via solar cells, but they can be expensive.

These embedded sensors can also help in traffic management, health assessments and monitoring personal exposure to air pollution. Delhi and Beijing, two cities that have suffered from poor air quality issues, are looking to IoT and artificial intelligence (AI) to forecast pollution spikes so they can act to alleviate them, for example. AI and IoT can work together to detect patterns in big data that are too complex for human analysts to spot.

It is little surprise therefore that a recent IDTechEx report estimates that the environmental sensor market will be worth in excess of $3 billion by 2027. This will be driven by emerging environmental regulations and increased consumer awareness.

Innovative steps

In South Korea, the Air Map Korea project is already underway with air quality sensors installed in telephone poles, phone booths and offices alongside base stations across the country. The sensors monitor fine dust, volatile organic compounds and humidity in real time. In Spain, Barcelona has tapped into smart lighting that feeds data to the government as well as sensors across the city to monitor air quality.

And in Glasgow, Scotland, the University of Strathclyde Institute for Future Cities and the industry-led Centre for Sensor and Imaging Systems (CENSIS) uses a sensor network on vehicles to monitor carbon monoxide (CO), particulate matter (PM), temperature, humidity, pressure, nitric oxide (NO), nitric dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3) and position.

In the U.S., Rice University – in collaboration with the Baylor College of Medicine and Houston, Texas – is developing drones with embedded sensors to track and detect air pollutants and advise neighborhoods if pollution is particularly poor due to adverse weather conditions.

With obvious attention paid to privacy, researchers at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have shown how anonymized sensor data from smartphones could provide more personalized air quality data. This is something I think we will see much more of in the future as we all become more aware of the dangers of poor air quality.

A breath of fresh air

The pollution challenge is not going to go away anytime soon. But IoT platforms, together with sensors and ubiquitous mobile networks, can provide a cost-effective way of measuring air quality to improve our environment. Fed into AI systems, this valuable data can help societies better understand air quality fluctuations and outline ways of reversing the trend – giving us all cleaner air to breathe.

Discover our solutions for connecting devices, sensors and machines, including IoT Connect Anywhere with LoRA, IoT Managed Global Connectivity, and the cloud-platform for connected device data Live Objects.

Jan Howells

Jan has been writing about technology for over 22 years for magazines and web sites, including ComputerActive, IQ magazine and Signum. She has been a business correspondent on ComputerWorld in Sydney and covered the channel for Ziff-Davis in New York.