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Sensors help map out cleaner cities

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2009
Rebecca C. Jernigan, rebecca.jernigan@laurin.com

LONDON – Most weather stations will give you a vague prediction of the daily air quality in your area, as a nod to those who are sensitive to changes in pollutants. How much more helpful for those concerned would it be, though, simply to log on to the Internet and see the current conditions for their location!

This is exactly what researchers from Imperial College London and from the universities of Cambridge, Leeds, Newcastle and Southampton, all in the UK, are working on. They have created MESSAGE (Mobile Environmental Sensing System Across Grid Environments), an initiative that brings together groups working in e-science, transport, sensors and communications to develop a system that can map the distribution of pollutants in cities.

At the beginning of July, the scientists deployed three types of sensors in South Kensington, Leicester, Gateshead and Cambridge to measure and model air pollution in these areas. The most sophisticated sensors in the study, which were attached to vehicles driving in South Kensington, simultaneously measure as many as five traffic pollutants, including nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide. These detectors are equipped with ultraviolet absorption spectroscopy technology that enables them to take measurements at 5-second intervals.

Other sensors will be attached to traffic lights and streetlamps to model pollution clouds in three dimensions, possibly enabling scientists to manage traffic congestion and improve air quality. The smallest versions will be carried by cyclists and pedestrians, who will transmit data through their mobile phones, recording everything from vehicle fumes to cigarette smoke.

The air quality measurements from each sensor, as well as each sensor’s location, will be tracked on Google maps. The study initially is using 100 sensors, but the researchers imagine that thousands of these devices eventually will be used across the country, changing the way we monitor, measure and manage urban pollution.


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