Newcastle University develops wireless air quality monitor

A new system that can provide detailed information on air quality in busy cities is being rolled out across the UK.

The MESSAGE (Mobile Environmental Sensing System Across a Grid Environment) solution was developed by researchers at Newcastle University to collect real-time, minute-by-minute, metre-by-metre data on traffic pollutants such as carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) as well as noise and climate conditions.

In use, sensors called ’motes’ are scattered around busy road junctions where they continuously monitor the level of roadside pollution. This data is then fed back to a central computer system and can be accessed in real time via the web.

Demonstrated for the first time in Gateshead last year, the sensors are now being commercially produced by a newly formed north-east company called EnviroWatch.

Developed by Prof Bayan Sharif and senior lecturer Jeff Neasham, based in the university’s School of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering, the sensors will enable transport scientists to better understand the links between traffic flow – in particular congestion – and pollution or noise levels.

Neasham said: ’The aim of this project was to improve our understanding of how pollution accumulates and disperses in our cities and ultimately to inform new traffic management plans that will improve urban air quality and transform the way we travel.

’Current environmental monitoring systems use roadside cabins but these are expensive and can only give a very sparse picture of the environment of a typical city.

’The key to our invention is that the devices are small, low cost and completely wireless, making them rapid and cheap to deploy in large numbers. They scavenge energy through solar power and use wireless communication to transfer data back directly to the end users and in real time.

’In this way, we can see exactly where and when problems are occurring and potentially respond to them immediately – for example automatically adjusting traffic signals to reduce congestion in problem areas.’

This will be the first time that local authorities have been able to monitor traffic pollution on such a large scale. Placed on lamp posts around cities, the sensors could eventually feedback information to individuals – drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and any other road users – who could potentially track the levels of pollution they are exposed to.

The data fed back from the sensors will be interpreted and analysed by the university’s Transport Operations Research Group led by Prof Margaret Bell and Prof Phil Blythe.