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Human Exposure and Atmospheric Sciences

Research in Action

Apps & Sensors for use in human exposure and community monitoring studies

A wide variety of highly portable smartphone-based and hand-held air quality sensors are being developed world-wide and made available to the general public at a relatively low cost. Some of these smartphone applications and monitoring devices — known as apps and sensors —are capable of providing estimates of pollutants, such as particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone, which EPA routinely monitors as part of assisting states in meeting National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).

The availability of apps and sensors for monitoring pollution is expected to result in world-wide interest in their use by citizens, community groups, and others. However, these newly-emerging technologies often have not been tested to determine their ability to accurately and consistently estimate environmental air quality.

Because of this, the reliability of their estimates needs to be better understood. Establishing the general reliability of these technologies can assist citizens, community groups, environmental researchers, and private and government organizations interested in using these technologies.

EPA scientists are working with app and sensor developers and potential users worldwide to investigate the state of the science regarding these technologies. In doing so, EPA has been coordinating a series of workshops focused on Next Generation Air Monitoring and collaborating with outside developers to test their technologies under laboratory conditions.

The goal of EPA’s apps & sensors research is to advance the paradigm of how air quality measurements are successfully performed, while reducing the cost and expense of their collection.

EPA’s app and sensor technology research has included:

  • Material Research and Development Cooperative Agreements for evaluating air pollution sensors
    In the summer of 2012, EPA offered a world-wide challenge to investigators developing low cost apps and sensor devices that have the ability to provide environmental air quality estimates of nitrogen dioxide and ozone. This challenge offered potential collaborators a laboratory-based examination of their apps and sensors using sophisticated environmental test chambers to establish basic performance characteristics of these technologies.

    As a result of the challenge, nine Material Cooperative Research and Development Agreements have been established between EPA and private app & sensor development research teams involved in designing lower-cost nitrogen dioxide and ozone-based sensors.

    EPA scientists are evaluating the developers’ apps & sensors in a laboratory setting and will be providing developers with feedback on their devices by the end of 2013. EPA scientists are working collaboratively with the sensor developers to establish the basic performance characteristics of their devices.

    In evaluating the devices, EPA scientists are determining the sensitivity of each technology in measuring known concentrations of gases. They are also evaluating how the devices respond to changing environmental conditions such as temperature, humidity, and interfering pollutant species.

    The feedback will help developers improve their designs, and the laboratory examinations of the devices will provide EPA with firsthand knowledge of emerging technologies that may be useful for future research.

  • The Village Green Project
    Air quality monitoring sensors within the bench that are controlled by sophisticated computer programs will enable near-instantaneous collection and reporting of environmental data to a public website. Smartphone scannable barcodes and a web address will be located on the bench. This will allow the public to have immediate, continuous access to current environmental conditions, and the community to use the information for environmental education activities.

    The scientists want to examine the potential for such systems to operate for months at a time in a near-autonomous state. Development of the prototype device represents the first step in examining the capabilities of such systems.

    EPA scientists hope this project will increase community engagement and awareness of air pollution, while advancing the ability to measure and communicate air pollution information continuously, in near real-time, with minimal infrastructure, and at low cost.

  • Next Generation Air Monitoring
    EPA has been coordinating a series of workshops focused on Next Generation Air Monitoring. This outreach has been part of a continuing discussion with sensor inventors, community-based researchers, regulatory officials and others interested in understanding more about how app and sensor technologies can be used in collecting environmental data. EPA’s workshops on this topic have included sessions on:

    • Citizen science and sensors;
    • Reducing measurement uncertainty;
    • Sensor performance and application guidelines;
    • Designing a sensor information clearinghouse;
    • Approaches for managing, analyzing, and visualizing large datasets; and
    • Challenges, data gaps, and needs regarding these new technologies.

    Interest in the workshops has been high. More than 440 people registered for the March 2013 Next Generation Air Monitoring workshop in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Participants included sensor & app developers, and representatives from private business, academia, states and regions, as well as individuals from more than 15 countries.

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