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Hey Jude: Air Quality Canary Project

I’m Jude, a Creative Technologist - which means I explore how old or current tech can be given a fresh twist, or how cutting edge tech can be understood more simply - both with the intention of creating new experiences that enrich our lives

Welcome to the Air Quality Canary Project.

This project started out as an investigation into Air Quality - how a staggering 99% of Londoners live in air so bad, the World Health Organisation considers it unfit to breathe.

It is also a project involving what we call Activist Engineering.

Sure, it has been covered in the news every now and then, but it soon fades back into the background, with few immediate actions being taken to improve the situation.

It is perhaps an issue that it’s hard to a. get access to the data that affects / impacts you, and b. It is not an ‘instant killer’ like a car accident, it’s hard to make headlines, despite the fact that 40,000 deaths per year in the UK are attributed to Air Pollution!

So this project is split into two themes. I truly believe that Engineers I’ve worked with at companies like Dyson, Sugru and LEGO are all nearly sceptical by nature (I consider this is a compliment by the way), and so are not easily duped by greenwashing or hype. So I am happy to be candid about the exact mechanism that brought you to read this blog, in the hope you will realise sometimes the ends justify the means - and hope that you’ll consider building one, certainly follow the other projects coming soon - and please share it with other people who would get a kick out of making one of these gizmos, but also enjoy the science bits...

So why did I make an Air Quality CO2 Canary?

It’s an invitation to act upon what we know. A visual reminder of simple steps we can take to improve life in a perhaps small but consistent manner.

  • To get your attention! Social Media algorithms are fickle, superficial things, and so we frankly cannot compete with a White Journal Paper PDF vs a Cat on a Roomba. So if my Air Quality Canary brought you here, then it has succeeded, the silliness was worth it...but please read on - it’ll get way more interesting than puns on canaries and coal miles. It could change your career!

From Nature.

  • Now that I have you attention, if you’ll pardon the ruse, I hope that you’ll actually find it mind-blowing as I did, that I was able to quite literally ‘talk myself stupider’ in just 1.5hrs of Zoom calls in my small home office (with windows shut). My wife was not at all shocked by this revelation, but even when not rabbiting on, you’ll respire a considerable amount of CO2 in just 1 hour that you should take seriously. I had assumed my headaches were from staring at a computer, but I now know it is CO2 levels. Data is powerful, even on little things.

There are clinical studies that show that if CO2 rises above 4000ppm you are physiologically less able to perform ‘lateral thinking’ tasks, or to put it another way ‘be creative’ - according to Harvard University. It’s ironic to think that making people sit for prolonged periods in stuffy rooms is exactly how you won’t solve real problems - now we have data to prove it.

  • Like any Engineers - I did not stop at this... I went deeper into the ‘rabbithole’ of CO2 science. And as I was reading around this subject, I realised that CO2 monitors were being used in Spain to evaluate Coronavirus risk.

Now, the biologists amongst you will instantly know that ‘you can’t detect a virus in the air with a $30 CO2 sensor!’ - and you’d be right, you cannot. But as a Proxy it is meaningful. CO2 sensors cannot say if the air in a room has been infected, but they can say that it has not been circulated/changed adequately to reduce the risk to a safe level. So Restaurants and Schools are now mandated to have CO2 sensors to make people aware - to open some windows, etc.

I find this amazing that a cheap sensor is still provoking the right behaviour in people, through data, even if it is only a proxy, and a good interim fix until someone does invent a Virus Detector - but this will not be anytime in this decade.

So in summary, the reason I’d encourage you to have a fun ‘artifact’ like a Canary on your desk, is not just to be functionally useful (it’ll remind you that your creativity will truly suffer if you do not open a window and get some fresh air), but just as a photo of your family on your work desk reminds you why you do the grind, we hope the Canary reminds you to keep pushing for better health for our planet. You could of course make one for a local school, or take one into the office. The point is, this is an un-intimidating way to engage people in awareness of an issue, without resorting to scaremongering.

Coming soon

In the next few weeks DesignSpark would love you to sign-up for a Beta Test Kit, and it has not just CO2, but also TVOC, Temp, RH%, Particles, and because it is ‘plug and play’ like LEGO bricks - it will have updates like Formaldehyde and NO2 coming soon. Sign-up to the Newsletter to hear more, or join myself and 11 other wonderful makers on Discord to explore, and find out more on how you can help...more details to follow.

As for now, here are key materials I'll be using in this project.



Stock No

Nano 33 IOT

Arduino, Nano 33 IOT Module with headers

Available with and without headers.



MKR WiFi 1010

Arduino, MKR WiFi 1010

Alternative to Nano 33 IoT


5V Servos

9G 180 Deg Micro Servo Motor


Servo Driver

Adafruit 16-Channel 12-bit PWM/Servo Driver - I2C interface


Sound board + Amp

Adafruit Audio FX Sound Board + 2x2W Amp - WAV/OGG Trigger - 2MB



Stereo Enclosed Speaker Set - 3W 4 Ohm

RS have speakers in stock which may also be suitable


5V Linear Regulator

STMicroelectronics, 5 V Linear Voltage Regulator, 1A, 1-Channel, 2% 3-Pin, TO-220 L7805ABV


1N4001 Diode

Vishay 50V 1A, Diode, 2-Pin DO-204AL 1N4001-E3/54


10K Pot

Variable resistor 10 - 50K Ohm


0.33uF Cap

0.33uF Ceramic Capacitor


0.1uF Cap

0.1uf Ceramic Capacitor


Power Supply

9V - 12V DC power supply or similar


Power Supply Connector

Female DC Power adapter - 2.1mm jack to screw terminal block



Generic breadboard


You can follow the Air Quality Canary Project in these following articles:

Winner of the 2020 Alastair Graham-Bryce "Imagineering" Award (IMechE), Jude thrives in high risk collaborations, uncertainty and pressure - drawing from global networks and experiences to deliver high profile campaigns and digital/physical products. A leading Creative Technologist & Physical Prototyping Expert, Jude has worked for NHS, Dyson, LEGO, and a number of start-ups. He is one of the eight featured inventors in BBC Two's Big Life Fix.
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