Here’s How Robots Can Help Us Deal With Pollution


Pollution and poor air quality are some of the largest killers in the world, resulting in more than 9 million deaths a year according to the Lancet Commission on pollution and health. Many of these deaths occur in metropolises, where gases and particles from factory activities and vehicles fill the air.

“The two-year project, which relied on data from researchers in more than 130 countries documenting the causes of disease and premature deaths in recent decades, found that poor air quality was the most significant pollution-related killer.”

In order to improve air quality in polluted areas, we need to start to meticulously measure, monitor, and manage pollution.

Existing Solutions

Currently, when cities start environmental programs to monitor air pollution, officials usually purchase full-scale air quality monitoring stations. These stations are precise in assessing air quality data, but their steep price often restricts the number of deployments, leading to gaps in coverage.

Some cities have started using Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a part of their “smart city” initiatives. Networks of connected sensors gather and send data to the processing center to identify high pollution, observe changes during different periods, and take appropriate action.

However, it takes impressive resources to fully cover the area of a city as the cost of high-quality sensors can go up to 5,000 USD. Besides, these sensors need to be maintained and calibrated regularly which can pose a significant barrier. The sensors are often installed in hard to reach areas and human maintenance can be very time-consuming, not to mention risky and dangerous.

We believe that stationary sensors are a great way to gather relevant pollution data but limitations exist which can constrain efficient environmental program realization.

Let’s use robots!

In 2018 we have collaborated with ITMO University and DAO IPCI to explore the opportunity of using mobile robotics equipped with sensors for environmental monitoring purposes. At we call it Drone Inspector.

This product allows you to measure pollution levels with the help of an aerial drone or waterborne robot. Our software solution enables you to connect to the robot remotely and launch autonomous inspection missions according to a “smart contract” signed with this robot. It will automatically collect data from electrochemical gas sensors, sign it with its key and send it securely to the environmental program operator.

The research consisted of 3 major components:

  1. Feasibility analysis of using unmanned aerial systems equipped with CO2, CO, NO, SO2 sensors for environmental monitoring as compared to the standard certified methods widely used in environmental monitoring.
  2. Air pollution monitoring in the cities of St. Petersburg and Tolyatti using a combination of aerial drones and stationary sensors to monitor CO2, CO, NO, SO2, PM1, PM2.5, PM10.
  3. Monitoring of water pollution using an autonomous sensor platform installed on a waterborne drone (concentrations of nitrogen-containing substances NO3-, NO2-, NH4 +, oxygen dissolved in water, turbidity and temperature in the surface layer of water).

1. Feasibility of Using Drones for Air Pollution Monitoring

The studies were carried out by simultaneously measuring the pollutants with drone sensors and standard eco-analytical methods most commonly used in environmental monitoring and control (using portable gas analyzers, collecting and analyzing samples by chromatographic, spectrophotometric methods). All studies were conducted using approved research methods and verified equipment.

As expected, results indicate high convergence of the results obtained by drone sensors and portable gas analyzers when measuring the content of gaseous pollutants in atmospheric air. This proves that it is feasible to use mobile robots, such as drones, to collect data about greenhouse gases (CO2, CO, NO, SO2) and to perform environmental monitoring at scale.

2. Real World Experiments in Saint Petersburg and Togliatti

To organize online environmental monitoring in an urban environment with its complex system of horizontal and vertical movement of air masses, it is necessary to organize a network of stationary measuring systems and UAVs equipped with sensors.

According to the measurement results in the city of Tolyatti daily fluctuations in the content of the main air pollutants are pronounced. High concentrations of NO are observed in the daytime (approximately from 5:00 in the morning to 16:00), whereas at night the emissions of NO are almost zero. An increase in SO2, PM1, PM2.5, PM10 particles is observed daily in the evening-night time (from 15:00 to 8:00), with the maximum emission values ​​for PM2.5, SO2 exceeding their maximum allowable values. According to the data, preliminary conclusions can be drawn that motor transport is the source of NO emissions, and evening-night maxima of sulfur oxides and other particles can be associated with the industrial activity.

The real world tests proved that the combination of stationary measuring systems and mobile robots can result in the most flexible and accurate environmental monitoring.

Additionally, mobile sensors can be used to check the calibration of stationary sensors in hard to reach areas reducing the maintenance costs and eliminating the risk for the humans.

3. River Pollution Monitoring with Waterborne Drone is suitable for applications involving different kinds of mobile robots, such as aerial drones, ground rovers, and autonomous cars, as well as waterborne drones!

As a part of our effort to develop sustainable solutions for environmental monitoring, we have developed a solution for water inspections using the same stack of decentralized technologies. Tests were carried out using an autonomous sensor platform installed on a waterborne drone. The sensors can measure the contents of NO3-, NO2-, NH4 +, dissolved oxygen, turbidity and temperature in the surface layer of water.

The data show the presence of such negative processes in the Volga ecosystem as eutrophication, surface acidification (very low pH) and very low levels of oxygen dissolved in water. The data also indicate an increased level of organic matter in the water which carries the risk of death for the living organisms in the ecosystem, which received public resonance in the summer of 2018.

The major cause of these dismal results is the excessive discharges of nitrogen-containing substances into the Volga which triggers a chain of dangerous ecological changes in the ecosystem.

To restore the ecological balance of water bodies that have reached toxic stages, as is observed on the Volga, it is necessary to organize monitoring systems with a significant number of measuring stations and real-time continuous monitoring. Creating a network of autonomous waterborne drones for measuring nutrients in water will allow to obtain operational information about the current state of the water body in different areas which, in turn, will allow to determine the source of pollution and take appropriate action.

What’s next?

The use of autonomous drones allows collecting accurate data about air pollution in specific locations and times to regulate natural capital markets. Mobile robotics allows to gather data in a more flexible and scalable way, providing data that is impossible to obtain any other way. And the use of blockchain and other decentralized technologies allows us to guarantee data consistency so that it cannot be manipulated by malefactors. Double-counting, fraud and the lack of trust are no longer issues!

In December 2018, our colleagues from DAO IPCI have participated in UN Climate Conference promoting the benefits of using blockchain technology for environmental programs. As we mentioned in our previous article, we cooperate with DAO IPCI to shift the Paris Agreement from human-to-human approach to machine-to-machine system based on “smart contracts” and independent sensor data.

We have been working on an interface that allows environmental program operators to order autonomous inspection missions using mobile robots. Our goal is to offer this demo online so that we can promote the vision of autonomous environmental monitoring and help make our planet cleaner!

We expect that mobile robotics can significantly improve the level of environmental control in cities, as well as in areas that require frequent monitoring of gas emissions, such as industrial facilities, landfills, waste recycling sites, oil and gas refineries, ports, roads, etc. Many complex industrial facilities currently cannot provide the necessary level of control. will continue working on solutions that will allow organizations and governments to set up environmental monitoring with the help of mobile robots as a part of our mission to help companies hire robots!