Bringing fourth wave innovation into the nation’s 4th largest city
Those who know me know I like a good challenge. So when Ramon Alvarez, Associate Chief Scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, reached out to me about creating an affordable, easy-to-use mobile air quality monitoring system for city vehicles in Houston, I was excited and knew my team would be, too.
The challenges were certainly there: mobility for one. The Houston heat being another. Of course, there was also the need to quickly install and remove these instruments by city employees, for the systems to be operationally reliable, and to upload large amounts of data to the cloud in real-time for analysis. And we needed to get this up and running in about a three-month time frame from start to finish. Challenge accepted.
Of course, it wasn’t just the challenge that drew me in. About five years ago, I saw the power of having mobile measurements and hyperlocal data available when I was measuring particulate matter around California. You could see large gradients in air quality — high levels of pollution and low levels of pollution only separated by a football field worth of space, in some cases. It was fascinating.
To kick this project off, we reached out to Dave Bush, Senior Scientist and Owner of T&B Systems. Together, we partnered on developing a mobile air monitoring system that utilizes existing, off-the-shelf technology, like small, relatively inexpensive air quality instruments, in a new way.
“The concept that you can slap a unit onto a vehicle, that was kind of novel. We had to come up with a system that was practically bullet-proof,” says Dave Bush of T&B Systems.
Once we had chosen our instruments, it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, the packaging of the system that presented the largest hurdles. A hard-shell case in a light tan, for example, trapped too much heat to work in the summer months in Houston. (Painting it white made all the difference.) We also had to ensure that the case was watertight while still having an effective ventilation system, which took several adjustments and a few runs through a car wash to test and ultimately achieve.
Adhering the case to a vehicle was certainly another critical piece of this puzzle. It needed to be easily mountable, but the system also had to withstand high speed, city street potholes, unpaved roads, high winds and more.
We started with magnetic feet, which worked well. We tested the system on bumpy roads, as well as on highways at high speeds, to see if there was any movement. There wasn’t. But because we placed safety first and foremost, we didn’t stop there. We also added cabling to anchor the case using the back doors of the vehicle.
With that, we were ready to train our City of Houston staff, who would be driving two city vehicles with these systems attached.
The process was designed to be simple for staff: a driver grabs the Mobile Hyperlocal Air Tracer (MHAT), installs a battery, turns the system on, checks that a few LED lights are illuminated and they’re ready to mount the MHAT on their vehicle. It can be done in just a few minutes. At the end of the day, they pull the system off, recharge the battery overnight and that’s it. Repeat the process the next day. Which they did, for three months, collecting valuable data that gave them a clearer picture of hot spots in the city and how to potentially address them.
“This is really changing the space of air quality monitoring. We’re moving from a few sampling locations using very expensive equipment to the possibility of thousands of locations providing data. It opens up a lot of possibilities,” says Bush.
As these instruments, including air sensors themselves, become cheaper and smaller, and the technology behind them continues to get better, what began as a mobile air quality monitoring challenge can become a more easily repeatable and scalable initiative for cities and municipalities everywhere.
In fact, since launching this project with EDF in the summer of 2018, we can already build an even smaller and lower cost solution that can easily go on ten times as many vehicles. Imagine being able to create these systems for purpose-driven results — if you think there’s an issue, you can check it out, get the data and learn from it quickly. And that’s exciting for all of us who not only care about air quality in our cities and neighborhoods, but also for my team and I to be working in this field, watching technology become more accessible and adaptable to these types of use cases.
If we think about how we’ve been measuring pollution for the past 50 years, it’s been with very few, very expensive sites. The fact that with this project, we proved the viability of going mobile and being able to do so at a lower cost brings us closer to a future where this technology and more critically, the data that comes from it, can and will be accessible to more people in more places.
We’re forging a new frontier in air quality monitoring. And I, for one, look forward to that challenge.