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IoT Enabled Air Monitors Help Smart Cities Breathe Easy

We’ve all seen photos of heavy smog days in Los Angeles or Beijing: the air is thick, yellow, and clearly dangerous. But even air that looks clean sometimes isn’t. It can be filled with tiny, dangerous particulate matter—no more than 2.5 microns across, but just as deadly as visible contaminants.

This can lead to enormous costs, in money and in human lives. In Europe alone, air pollution is estimated to kill 300,000 people prematurely each year, and in the United States, the cost of asthma treatments are expected to rise to $14 billion a year by 2020. It’s hardly surprising that countries around the globe are becoming more serious about tackling this issue. The European Commission (EC), for example, has a goal of reducing fine particles to 50% of 2010 levels by 2020.

But it is one thing to establish clean air standards and quite another to actually meet them.

To gain an accurate measure of air quality across wide regions, cities and private interests will need large arrays of very advanced, very sensitive monitors. These monitors must be able to detect microscopic pollutants, to constantly assess the air (which is in an ongoing state of flux depending on factors like location, weather, and time of day), and to provide immediate, real-time updates to a central location. Such a widespread, always-on approach will require an adaptive wireless system—one that can cover both rural and urban environments.

It’s a challenge for equipment manufacturers, certainly. But it’s a challenge that companies like EcoLogicSense, in partnership with Sierra Wireless, are already beginning to meet.

The Need for—and Challenges of—Smart Air Monitors

The need for smart air monitors is driven by a number of players, which means that OEMs interested in entering the market must understand (and be able to cater to) a variety of needs:

●   Governments. Provincial, administrative, municipal, and federal governments all have a duty to their citizens to understand air quality—a duty which, as strict EU standards show, is felt keenly in Europe. These government entities are likely to require large systems, whether spread out over a specific area (like an airport) or across an entire district, in order to gain the type of comprehensive picture necessary for guiding legislation.

●   Industry. As the EC’s Industrial Emission Directive shows, industries are increasingly responsible for measuring their own impact on the environment. Whether an old factory that’s being retrofitted or a new production site, manufacturers have to be able to monitor their pollution levels—in real time—so that they can make adjustments to stay within code.

●   Construction and Building Trades. Companies face pressure to gauge how construction is impacting air quality, whether they’re constructing buildings, bridges or roadways. The European Commission, for example, mandates an Environmental Impact Assessment for new projects. While this type of data collection must be done in advance, companies will also need a way to ensure they’re staying on target during the project itself—which may require measuring air quality across large and sometimes very rural areas.

To understand the promise of these types of smart air monitoring systems, consider the recent work of French company EcoLogicSense, which helped the government of Grenoble monitor town pollution levels. EcoLogicSense deployed ten microsensors on the roof of Grenoble’s busiest tramway line. These sensors now record air quality in real time, even while trains are in motion. The system takes about 6000 measures a day, which, according to the government board who ran the project, offer “a better spatial representation of pollution thanks to concrete, time-stamped and geolocated data.” With this information, Grenoble can understand how its transportation system contributes to pollution—and can even impose tariffs to help counteract these effects.

But there are challenges for any system that must handle such large volumes of data. In rural areas (the kind that many road projects go through) there is low network coverage, and in smaller towns, connections are often spotty or unreliable. Related difficulties occur in cities, where signals can be blocked and different providers might have different signal strengths depending on the neighborhood.

And without consistent connection, real-time monitoring is essentially useless.

Wireless Solutions to Widespread Monitoring

EcoLogicSense chose to meet these challenges with an equally rigorous solution. Since connectivity is in many ways key to air quality monitoring (much like energy monitoring), the company outfitted its sensors with Smart SIM cards from Sierra Wireless.

These Smart SIM cards can automatically switch between networks to capture the best signal—especially helpful for project sites like Grenoble’s tram lines, where the monitors are moving, or for large rural sites where signals can be weak and varied. The ability to incorporate multi-operator coverage also means that OEMs can offer real-time monitoring in densely crowded areas without worrying about losing signal because one operator is down.

It isn’t just about being able to collect the most data: Because EcoLogicSense monitors have wireless capabilities, they’re much easier to install and maintain. This dramatically lowers costs for cities and businesses hoping to deploy them—and not just on the front end. There’s no need to replace each monitor if an area’s main cellular provider changes. This saves money on maintenance throughout the life of the project.

Cost saving measures will be important for the long-term viability of air quality control. Large projects that are run on solar power often necessitate an enormous amount of solar cells, which can be prohibitively expensive. Devices that are able to operate on Low Power Wide Area (LPWA)  networks have a distinct advantage. LPWA is perfectly suited to handling the type of data coming from each individual air monitor and helps reduce the battery power used during transmission. This reduces cost, making the widespread adoption of smart monitors more economically feasible. Companies that use LPWA networks to offer lower prices will ultimately be more competitive in the market.

Moving Forward: Cleaner, Smarter Cities, a More Connected World

The world’s population is growing. More and more people live in urban areas, and monitoring the quality of resources like air and water will become ever important. It’s one important step toward tomorrow’s smart cities. And it’s just the beginning.

Smart cities might soon provide constant, real-time updates in order to protect the health of their citizens. People could receive smartphone notifications if air in one area was especially high in particulate matter—and the more sensors, the more accurate the data. But all this will require a way to collect, instantly analyze, and distribute data. It will require an array of sensors that aren’t tied to any one network. It will require LPWA to stay functional in the field.

Our air flows everywhere. It doesn’t respect city lines or national borders. So monitoring it, and understanding the impact of a train in France on the air in Spain, also means scaling up to global solutions. And that’s what the network, the power, and the data solutions of Sierra Wireless can help provide.

At Sierra Wireless, we’re enabling transformation and helping cities get smarter. Companies who are developing sensors for private or public groups need solutions that can match the scope of their projects. Start with Sierra for innovative wireless solutions that can help your company make the planet a cleaner place.

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