Parthsarathi (Parth) Trivedi is CEO and co-founder of Skylo.
Thousands of premature deaths occur because of the world’s deteriorating air quality. The World Health Organization reports that air pollution carries responsibility for one in nine deaths annually. Additionally, as a NatGeo report (registration required) highlighted, poor air quality has also caused an increase in Covid-19 related deaths, given that the virus exacerbates respiratory vulnerabilities.
Growing up in Kolkata, India, I didn’t notice the effects of polluted air until I moved to West Lafayette, Indiana, for college. My perpetual sore throat seemed to recover almost immediately, and my energy levels felt noticeably higher. While I was lucky to have relatively cleaner air with filtered air conditioning indoors for most of my life, that’s not the case for a majority of the world’s population that’s subjected to severely unhealthy levels of ambient air pollution. The impacts on our health, livelihoods and the global economy are truly resounding.
As the CEO and co-founder of a company that plays a part in the process of creating cleaner air, I’ve observed that addressing this challenge requires a multi-tiered approach: providing better measurements, delineating sources of contributing emissions and studying how the various chemical species interact within our atmosphere. and lead to an impact on human health. All of this can help mitigate air pollution via a technology-driven approach and a regulatory-driven approach.
If we’re to achieve the WHO’s aspirational goal of reducing the number of deaths from air pollution by two-thirds by 2030, we need to better understand air quality challenges and equally rapidly converge on the right set of solutions.
The Importance Of Sensors
The starting point in any ambitious goal-setting, as John Doerr points out, is to measure what matters. Data is our biggest leverage in the fight against air pollution, perhaps second only to greater awareness and political actions to appropriately carve out air quality as a priority within government budgets globally.
Historically, the number of air quality sensors (usually in the form of room-sized air quality stations) in the world’s most polluted regions has been limited to a few dozens spread across several square kilometers. This prevents organizations from receiving a granular trace of specific pollution sources, such as vehicular movement or forest fires, and the spread of pollutants across the population.
As the cost of sensing hardware drops with the growth in high-volume consumer products and wearables, it will become possible for companies to deploy sensors deep within cities, villages, farmland and forests to create a continuous monitoring program. I believe it won’t be long before a MEMS-based air quality monitor is introduced on your wrist, built right into your mobile phone, and a default within air conditioners sold in the consumer market.
In fact, the Apple Watch, as an example, is already starting to capture environmental factors such as noise. Once able to capture environmental factors, companies will be able to access a repository of hyper-local data on PM2.5, CO, NOX, SOX and other pollutant species that lead to various human health impacts. This can unlock the potential to trace exact pollution exposure based on aggregate historical location when combined with data from geographically distributed sensors, helping medical professionals and researchers better understand the causes and effects of pollution on human health and well-being.
Addressing The Challenges
It isn’t the sensors alone but also the software layer above that will define how quickly we can arrive at conclusions and interventions to mitigate the root cause of air pollution. Unfortunately, some of the world’s most polluted countries globally also have the lowest density of sensors deployed today to continuously monitor air quality. While municipal bodies in cities undertake sensor deployments as part of “smart cities” initiatives, it’s equally important for organizations to source data from farms, remote factories and forests, which are often the largest contributors to deteriorating air quality in urban areas because emissions travel great distances — across countries and even across continents.
The common challenge across distributed air quality sensors is access to seamless, affordable connectivity.
Deploying sensors in rural farmlands and forests assume that connectivity is available, which is rarely the case. However, when augmented with connectivity supplied from space, these sensors are able to report data without geographic constraints, allowing companies to field them effectively. (Full disclosure, my company offers connectivity for sensors, as do others.) The combination of a sensor-centric, pervasive connectivity layer coupled with sensor fusion, cloud compute and AI can create a powerful combination to address our measurement problem.
Businesses In Action
My personal prediction is that the commoditization of air quality sensing, coupled with data from a large volume of distributed sensors, down to the individual consumer is inevitable and will serve to better address our problem of awareness and health impacts.
Businesses can do their part in making air quality data that they gather available openly for others to access and build better models with. This will aid in the “crowdsourcing” of air quality data across different types of sensors. Researchers and policymakers could then leverage fused data across multiple sources to paint a precise picture of air quality over place and time and make better-informed decisions.
Collecting and delivering better data is a good starting point to help discover the global truth about air quality, motivating us to find collective and innovative ways to improve the quality of the air we breathe.