CW assembled a plethora of technology and air quality monitoring experts for its first event in the 2019 CW Unplugged “Tech for the Environment” programme, “Tech for Air”.
Led by social responsibility heavyweights United Nations Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) and the Centre for Global Equality, and sponsored by two local tech giants Arm & u-blox, Tech for Air gathered teams of entrepreneurs, engineers and enthusiasts to address the technological and business challenges that are blocking the rapid growth of two start-ups: open-seneca and Emsol.
The teams from Smart Cambridge and UNEP-WCMC set the scene for the day, outlining the importance of monitoring air quality as well as the work currently underway at both a local and international level to address issues.
UNEP-WCMC is a team of lawyers, researchers, analysts, economists and programmers that promote the value of biodiversity and provide Governments and businesses with the data and tools they need to prioritise nature in their decision making.
Recent reports, news stories and protests have dramatically increased the public awareness of the impending biodiversity crisis. The IPBES Global Assessment warned that one million species were at risk of extinction because of human behaviour. Yet there are many reasons for why business and Government might want to protect it, for example resource availability and business continuity from a financial lens. Many businesses, from agriculture to pharmaceuticals to manufacturing, are highly reliant on a flourishing natural planet for their success.
Air quality is a subsection of the work explored at UNEP-WCMC, and it is impacted by many industries, particularly those involved in deforestation or animal husbandry. Meanwhile, many sectors will be impacted by inferior air quality, particular as climates start to change. Controlling air quality can improve a nation’s health, food and water security and mitigate against climate change. Moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy will make a significant impact on air quality across the globe. Moving to “green infrastructure” (e.g. plant walls) will make urban development more sustainable, for example by protecting against floods and treating wastewater.
In Cambridgeshire specifically, it was reported that in 2010 there were 257 deaths attributable to air pollution, with 50 deaths reported in Cambridge in 2018. The impact of air quality on respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions is even higher. Cambridge is a hotspot for poor air, thanks to population growth that outstrips transport infrastructure improvements. It is the fastest growing city in the UK today, and this trend isn’t slowing: the population of Greater Cambridge is expected to grow 28% by 2031, meaning more cars on the road and more traffic-related emissions entering the atmosphere. Estimates suggest that there will be about 25,000 more trips on the transport network.
There are ambitious plans to develop clean public transport solutions to address the regional congestion challenge, but in the meantime the team at Smart Cambridge is busy developing a baseline understanding of air quality in the city now, so that they can accurately track the impact of different interventions. One project that will kick off this summer is the closure of Mill Road for railway bridge improvements. Sensors are being installed in the area to see how the air quality improves, and the traffic system will be monitored to see whether the closure leads to people simply changing routes, or changing transport modes altogether – for example, opting to cycle rather than drive to miss the traffic jams.
In collaboration with the University of Cambridge, the Smart Cambridge team have developed the Intelligent City Platform to support innovation and trialling. Combining the data on buses, traffic control, waste management, air quality etc has provided new insights into what the local Government can do for the benefit of the wider community, and also opens the door to creating apps that nudge citizens towards more sustainable solutions. They’ve also teamed up with the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction to produce a Digital Twin of the city to help with planning.
Throughout the city, Nitrogen Dioxide and Particulate Matter (PM) are the two main factors tracked. There are 6 Continuous Monitors stationed in the area and 70 “passive” nitrogen dioxide tubes at various locations. Check out the handy map below to find a station near you!
Focusing on the centre of town, the map below shows current average concentration levels for NO2. Thankfully, the trend in the past 5 years has been for concentrations to decrease. You can see how much poorer the air quality is on the road network, especially at major intersections and the bus station.
Anne-Marie is currently working on the Clean Air Zone Feasibility Study which explores the expected impact on air quality of different interventions, balanced with the costs of installing the zone. The expectation is that a doubling in the number of buses required to handle the increased population, but local buses contribute the largest amount of NO2 to the city’s atmosphere. The Study is running scenarios that include switching all buses to electric, and banning cars from the Clean Air Zone, to see what the impact might be on NO2 levels. This Study relies on accurate air quality measuring…which is where the start-ups come in!
CamBike Sensor is a citizen science project that started in Cambridge and has expanded internationally. It measures PM2.5 and PM10 levels in the city by strapping bikes with air quality sensors and setting them loose in town. Their hardware is low-cost, modular and simple with a plug-and-play, off-the-shelf quality.
Their goal is to raise awareness of air quality issues among citizens by gathering and sharing data, to give governments indicative input for their decision making and ultimately build a worldwide platform. The map below demonstrates the visualization tool, and shows the air quality in Cambridge between the hours of 3PM and 6PM. You can see that there are high concentrations of PM around schools – probably to do with parents gathering in their cars at these areas at these times:
The international spin-out from CamBike Sensor, open-seneca, that has been working with government representatives in Argentina to deploy the technology in Buenos Aires gathered this data during their recent short project:
The plan for achieving this ambition is to franchise the concept and enable local communities to co-create and rollout the technology within their own region. In Nairobi, for example, the CamBike Sensor team realised that pedal bikes would not be an option for gathering data, but motorbikes would.
The CamBike Sensor team presented two challenges to the audience:
- Should we focus on making a universal device (i.e. completely user and location independent) rather than making different versions?
- How can we bring the franchise model to our project in order to make local citizen science projects across the world that are self-sustained, while preserving their quality?
open-seneca added two more questions related to their international expansion:
- What is the best way to deal with the fast moving advances in wireless communications to make a system that is fit for purpose across the world (especially in developing countries)?
- We acknowledge that value is in our data. How can we capitalise the data while still maintaining our goals/values? (i.e. is it feasible to seek for funding that enables mass production, and "free" distribution, having a model where the data value pays back for the cost of the sensor?)
Emsol, the final start-up of the evening, offer a B2B Software as a Service platform with IoT sensors enabling premises and transport operators to manage environmental impacts, including both air and noise pollution. It enables businesses to
- Achieve environmental goals through a prioritised action plan based on up-to-date and reliable data.
- Help a site and company achieve industry-recognised accreditation, such as the Freight Operator Recognition Scheme.
- Demonstrate impact on reducing local pollution to the community with a meaningful means of engagement.
- Lead the industry with the next generation of emission monitoring and reporting requirements.
- Engage staff and contractors in reducing the impacts of their work.
Steve, the Founder, has experience in the freight industry and is already engaging with a number of key customers, including Croydon Council who are using Emsol to monitor air quality at nine schools in their borough. However, he is still facing challenges that need to be addressed, including:
- How to reduce the cost of sensor deployment
- How to identify cause and effect – ie prove that a specific vehicle prompted a deterioriation in air quality
- Whether it is possible to find a mechanism to motivate change in businesses
Following the breakout brainstorming sessions led by our amazing facilitators at Cambridge Consultants and Fresh Perspectiv, the following actions was gathered:
- CamBike Sensor
- The brainstorming group developed a clear plan of action to go down the modular route after debating whether a standard ‘one size fits all’ device or a locally tailored device would work best.
- Further research needs to be done into build materials and costs, as raw costs only are known at the moment, and so there’s no real sell to a franchisee.
- Continue exploring different wireless communication methods (e.g. Bluetooth/Wifi/GSM) to make it easier to transfer data from sensor hub to the server, while assessing volume and frequency needs and power consumption
- Clarify what data can be sourced, what can be done with it and who would be interested in using it. Real estate was a potential monetisation route.
- Continue to develop the roadmap and include 5G technology, meanwhile considering the frequency requirements for data uploading.
- Identify the right departments within companies that should be contacted, and document the penalties/fines currently faced by companies with regards to air pollution and how will their tech compare cost wise to this to build a compelling argument.
CW will continue to work with these start-ups as they progress their businesses. Many thanks to all our supporters and everyone who attended on the day and provided their insight! You are welcome to register to attend the next event in the CW Unplugged series, Tech for Earth, on 19 June. Start-ups will be announced soon!