Google equips ‘Street View’ cars with sensors to monitor air pollution

29 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Google Maps Outdoor Air Quality through Street View Vehicles.

From checking out various cities to taking a virtual vacation, Google’s Street View – a technology featured in Google Maps and Google Earth – has provided 360-degree views from positions along many streets in the world. In partnership with San Francisco-based Aclima, Google Earth Outreach strapped environmental sensors onto its roaming vehicles in order to measure various air pollutants.While Google’s Street View cars have been busy snapping images of roads across the globe, including some of the most remote locations on Earth, a small handful of the smart vehicles have been quietly gathering data on something that’s much harder to see: air pollution.

The next time you see a Google Street View car cruising down your block, it might be doing more than just snapping photos — it could be tracking air pollution. Aclima, a company that makes environmental sensors, announced this week that it’s been working with Google to put air quality detectors on some of its cars. In the city, it can vary from block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood, and many times the current network of sensors just doesn’t pick up on fine-scale pollution events that could also lead to a spike in your asthma. This allows you to look at the address, or area you typed in, so that you know you’re not walking into Dracula’s castle — or another place you probably don’t want to end up in. The cars spent 750 hours on the city’s streets and collected 150 million data points about levels of various air pollutants, many of them caused directly and indirectly by gas-powered cars and fossil fuel-based power plants.

The cars, which should hit the streets of San Francisco this fall, will collect data on the levels of carbon monoxide, methane, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds polluting the air. While the Environmental Protection Agency already has air quality sensors spread throughout the city, Aclima says the new mobile monitoring capabilities will fill in the gaps where fine-scale changes in pollution levels are often missed. “The monitoring network is designed for air quality regulation, but does not give a detailed picture of a community or urban area such that people can get a real sense of what air pollution is around their immediate surroundings,” Melissa Lunden, Director of Research for Aclima, says. “Mobile air quality sensing gives us a picture of the variability. Starting this fall, three air quality cars will be buzzing around San Francisco, with the hopes of using the data to inform community decisions and new science and health studies. A key point of the test was to validate seven-year-old Aclima’s environmental sensor tech, which is a first step for the startup to offer the environmental sensors more widely.

It fills in those missing pixels.” The two companies previously teamed up to run a test of the system in Denver last year, resulting in a dataset that shows when the air quality is best or worst in certain areas of the city. The company also makes it own hardware and has been developing what it says is the world’s smallest particulate matter sensor in collaboration with the EPA and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. The initiative to measure levels of air quality in urban areas is an extremely efficient one, as we can become more aware of the risks of living the big city life. Aclima doesn’t say how widely its sensors will be used, but it wants to collect enough data to hand off to local scientists and communities to work with. To date, the technology has expanded to include cities and rural areas worldwide, with some remote locations like Mount Everest or the Pyramids of Giza included.

Put it this way, three years ago the IT giant announced that it has captured 20 petabytes of data, comprising photos taken along 5 million miles of roads, covering 39 countries and about 3,000 cities. Already, the EPA says it’s helping to determine how air pollutants “move in an urban area at the ground level.” Aclima says that its Denver trial was a proof of concept that’ll help it to scale up the partnership. The cars are programmed to drive for 750 hours and gather expected scientific expertise in study design and instrument operations as part of the terms of partnership with Google, generally known as the Cooperative Research and Development Agreement. Aclima was founded by Davida Herzl and her family in 2008, and the company only began to talk publicly about what it’s been up to about a month ago. This Autumn, Aclima, and Google will expand mapping efforts to the San Francisco Bay Area and work with communities and scientists to explore applications for this new gadgetry.

Better, and more, data will be crucial to helping cities combat the growing amount of air pollution causing human health problems, and causing global warming. We hope this information will enable more people to be aware of how our cities live and breathe, and join the dialog on how to make improvements to air quality.” The deal seems to be just a small part of a long-term cooperation.

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