Pollution project

Scientists at Imperial College London are transforming pedestrians, cyclists, buses and cars into mobile wireless sensors to demonstrate new ways of measuring air quality.


Scientists at Imperial College London are transforming pedestrians, cyclists, buses and cars into mobile wireless sensors to demonstrate new ways of measuring air quality.


The researchers hope to demonstrate how small mobile sensors could improve the way air quality in urban areas is monitored and managed.


John Polak, project director, from the Centre for Transport Studies at Imperial College London, said: ‘There is a lot that we do not know about air quality in our cities and towns because the current generation of large stationary sensors do not provide enough information. We envisage a future where hundreds and thousands of mobile sensors are deployed across the country, to improve the way we monitor, measure and manage pollution in our urban areas.’


The Imperial team is deploying three new types of sensors in the demonstration, measuring multiple types of traffic emissions and noise pollution. The team will receive data from 100 sensors deployed in South Kensington, Leicester, Gateshead and Cambridge to test how they operate from different locations.


It is hoped the new sensor technology will mean researchers can measure and model air quality in unprecedented detail to improve their understanding about pollution hotspots and analyse the factors such as bad urban design that contribute to poor air quality.


The scientists will also model pollution clouds in 3D, by attaching sensors to traffic lights and street lamps. They aim to understand how it forms, lingers and dissipates in high-emission zones. The team hopes this will lead to insights about whether, for example, poor signalling causes traffic congestion that contributes to reduced air quality in the area.


The scientists will deploy sensors that will measure up to five traffic pollutants simultaneously, including nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxides. Researchers have equipped the sensors with ultraviolet absorption spectroscopy technology, which uses ultraviolet light to detect pollutants in the atmosphere. This means researchers can take air quality measurements at five-second intervals, which is fast enough to allow deployment on moving cars and buses. These sensors will be attached to vehicles driving around South Kensington.


Another type of sensor will be attached to pedestrians and cyclists to measure the pollution that they are exposed to as they move around. These sensors are small enough to fit into a pocket and can detect car pollutants and other contaminants including carbon monoxide from cigarette smoke. The sensors use the wearer’s mobile phone to transmit data, which enables the wearer to monitor pollution levels around them.


In addition, the team will install sensors to analyse the link between traffic congestion and levels of pollution in targeted locations such as pedestrian crossings, traffic intersections, industrial areas and motorways. These sensors will measure noise and air pollutants and use ultrasound technology, where high-frequency sound is bounced off cars, to count traffic driving past. They will be located at South Kensington, Gateshead and Leicester.


The air-quality measurements and the location of each mobile sensor will be tracked on Google maps.


The Mobile Environmental Sensing System Across Grid Environments (MESSAGE) initiative is led by Imperial College London and brings together specialist research groups in the fields of e-science, transport, sensors and communications technologies from the Universities of Cambridge, Leeds, Newcastle and Southampton.


The three-year project is jointly funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Department for Transport.