Why new sensor technology is critical for tackling air pollution

We tested air quality sensors on city fleet vehicles in Houston, Texas, to prove this approach can be taken to scale.
Photo credit: Vlad Busuioc

Our work with Google shows that levels of air pollution vary much more widely than was previously known.

We now know that levels of air pollution can vary by up to eight times within one city block – and that living in areas with the most elevated levels increases heart attack risk in the elderly by 40 percent, similar to a history of smoking.

Also, new satellite data shows that 24 million more Americans – twice as many than previously thought – live in areas with unhealthy air, making it more important than ever to address the problem.

So EDF and partners like Google Earth Outreach are piloting a range of studies featuring new, lower-cost sensors, to help us map air pollution at the hyperlocal level. This new generation of sensors can be mounted on cars, trucks and even bicycles – or in denser stationary networks than previous monitors.

Mobile sensing offers block-by-block insight

Before and after comparison of monitoring technology

For a pilot project in Oakland, California, our mobile measurement team outfitted Google Street View cars with air quality sensors to gather air pollution data at street level, where people are actually breathing the air.

This new methodology allowed us to collect much more data at a level of detail that was nearly impossible before – and showed just how much pollution varied over very short distances.

  Low-cost sensors High-grade sensors

Stationary

Can be mounted on buildings and poles, virtually anywhere Durable, providing a stable picture, operational 24/7

Mobile

Scalable for fleets or individuals. Provides wider coverage. Data must be analyzed for quality control Like the EDF/Google Earth Outreach project: reliable, stable data with wide-scale coverage

The various types of sensors we're testing and some of their characteristics.

In Oakland, people are already using the data from our study to push for emission reductions under a new air quality law that seeks to reduce pollution in California’s most affected neighborhoods.

Seeing pollution mapped this way makes us better advocates for cleaner air and smart development choices.

Cassandra Ely,  Project lead at EDF

Each new city refines the approach

As sensor prices continue to fall, deployment of mobile and stationary monitoring becomes even more practical. We are currently testing how these methods work in different kinds of urban environments.

Oakland

  • Sensor types: Mobile sensors on Google Street View cars.
  • Goal of research: Learn how to interpret millions of sensor readings and make health risks visible so communities can advocate for cleaner air.
  • Key insight: Pollution varies significantly from block to block.
  • Status: Driving and analysis complete. View the maps »

Houston

  • Sensor types: Low-cost mobile sensors on city fleet vehicles, as well as mobile sensors on Google Street View cars and stationary sensors.
  • Goal of research: Understand how sensors work on city vehicles in a larger geographic area so approach can be taken to scale, test new sensor types and increase number of pollutants detected.
  • Status: Driving complete. Analysis in progress. Learn more »

London

  • Sensor types: Mobile sensors on Google Street View cars and stationary sensors on buildings and lampposts.
  • Goal of research: Build on our learnings from previous projects to inform ultra-low emissions vehicle regulations.
  • Status: Driving in progress. Learn more »

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