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10 Aug 2018, 7:56

Air Pollution. Is the Solution in the (IoT) Clouds?

Air pollution…for some of us who inhabit this globe, is either a direct issue or it isn’t, I am of course referring to where you live, but aside from your personal interaction with the air that we breathe, the fact remains that air pollution is a serious concern for all of us. Air pollution, the type responsible for the creation of smog, is also responsible for other environmental incidents, such as acid rain, ozone layer damage and also plays a role in climate change.

We have all seen images of crowded cities shrouded in a dense smog and read about the implications on people’s health that these highly polluted zones are responsible for. In December 1952, during a 4 day period, a smog settled over London that killed 12000 people and may have led to the deaths of 8000 more in the months that followed. This disaster ultimately led to the UK clean air act of 1956, where smokeless coal was introduced along with a host of other measures such as relocating power stations away from urban centres to help prevent such an occurrence. The air around London and other urban centres consequently improved.

Pea-Souper wasn’t Super

The ‘Pea-Soupers’ that once frequented London’s skies and were responsible for many deaths during that time period are now only found in the history books, but that’s not to say that the air in London is less polluted, it’s just that it’s not as polluted as it was.

Nearly 70 years later, thankfully such a deadly incident hasn’t reoccurred to the same degree, however, in the wider world incidents of health-damaging pollution and localised smog are on the increase in countries such as India, Pakistan and China to mention just a few. The World Health Organisation (WHO), claim that over 7 million people each year fall victim to the perils of air pollution, a staggering statistic especially when coupled with the statement that 91% of the global population lives in places where air quality is a serious concern.

As the governments responsible for these countries are coming to terms with the long-term effects of rapid industrialisation, and is often the case, without the prior considerations of environmental implications, attempts are now being made to try and redress the balance. In China, for example, Coal-fired power stations proliferated to support the power demands of their rapid industrial growth, consequently, this caused greater pollution. Now, with a clamp-down on coal-fired power stations and a switch to natural gas-powered energy generation, this has resulted in a significant reduction in pollution levels across the country.

Image source: NBC News

The Giant Air Purifier

In Xian, in the Shaanxi province of China, a unique and innovative approach to tackling air pollution has been devised, a 100m high air purification tower has been constructed. This unique building sucks air into large greenhouses around its base, heating the air which then rises through multiple layers of cleaning filters before being emitted from its peak, generating air quality improvements of an area of allegedly 10km square.  Processing millions of cubic metres or air since its conception, air pollution data collected locally is claiming that this device has reduced the number of airborne particulates by 15%. This building is a smaller version of a proposed much bigger model, which is intended to be 500m tall with a 200m diameter featuring greenhouses covering 30km squared at its base and is said to be capable of providing clean air for a small city, simply incredible if the effectiveness of this device is accurate. There are a plethora of innovative designs taking shape out there, some interesting concepts can be found here that are worth a look at.

Cities across the globe are taking the initiative to try and curb the issue of pollution, banning cars or reducing the number allowed in at certain times along with engine size and fuel type restriction. Public transport vehicles, inherently diesel powered, are being converted to natural gas, cycle lanes and the use of bicycles are being promoted, all good ideas. Freiburg in Germany has 500km of cycle-ways and a cheap and efficient public transport system. One area, Vauban, has stopped people from parking near their homes and makes car owners pay 18000 Euros for a parking zone on the edge of town. In return for this apparently draconian methodology, people are offered cheaper housing and free public transport.

Air, in Real Time

From a personal perspective, what can we do to help reduce air born pollution? Simple things such as switching off lights and electrical devices, using energy efficient bulbs, switching to electric vehicles, using public transport etc. are all staple details we are being fed on a daily basis, nothing new there. But, besides all the sensible options we can take to run along in parallel with local government initiatives there is something that some people are already doing that you could do as well. This isn’t so much a ‘stop using your car’ kind of initiative, but rather a chance for the population to add their data to a growing global pool of information via the IoT.

Government data concerning local pollution levels aren’t generally published and isn’t shown in real-time, certainly not in the UK, so generally you have no idea what areas of a town or city suffer from pollution. Plume Labs, located in France, has developed a personal air quality monitoring device that works in tandem with their phone app. Together, and with information gathered by other users a comprehensive array of data can be captured in cities around the world. This data can help provide real-time information on local pollution levels, show areas that are heavily polluted and at what times and likewise less so, interesting stuff. This type of innovation clearly demonstrates just what can be done to help monitor and provide data to combat pollution on a more-personal-to-you level. Combining this information with data from hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of users worldwide could prove invaluable in the fight for cleaner safer air.

IoT, the Air and Litigation

The IoT has opened the door for initiatives and innovations in this area of public safety to come to the fore. With litigation and the onus of responsibility falling onto the shoulders of corporations and governments to protect themselves and their people, developments in the arena of safer air will only increase. For example, the UK government itself has been sued numerous times for its failure to tackle air pollution levels, Exxon is set to pay $2.5 million in fines for pollution from ‘flaring gases’ at several of their plants across the Gulf Coast.  The UN has stated that:

 ‘Anyone who pollutes, anyone who destroys nature must pay the cost of destruction or that pollution’

If it hasn’t occurred already, it’s only a matter of time before a company or government is fined heavily for failing to act adequately to prevent a serious air pollution event that leads to serious injury or perhaps the deaths of innocent civilians, complacency isn’t an excuse anymore.

The Data that can be gathered via the IoT is growing exponentially in all areas of life, along with the number of devices that can be connected and provide intelligent data. Air pollution and the quality of the air we breathe, aside from personal circumstances, such as where we live and work, has to be down to the various institutions and corporations that we coexist with which are liable for producing harmful contaminants. We can help, that’s for sure, as mentioned previously, and that help can come in the guise of devices like the ‘Flow’ and innovative air monitoring networks established and feeding the IoT via a multitude of projects and designs already. A brief Google search reveals many Arduino and Raspberry Pi air monitoring projects that are perhaps for more personal gratification than general consumption but are serving to sow the seedlings of future development.

The open source style of design that is embracing many avenues of our lives will surely help accelerate this potential network of air monitoring devices and coupled with the broad range of sensors available for use by the likes of you and I means it’s not just a matter of if, but rather a case of when.

Would you be willing to monitor air quality and share the data?

Countless years taking things to bits to see how they tick...

10 Aug 2018, 7:56