Sensing the Future

By Dustin Renwick

The air quality monitor mounted on your backyard bird feeder sends your laptop an instant message as you eat lunch: “Ozone alert.”

You decide to run later in the evening without having to consult The Weather Channel or a local radio station.

As a runner, this type of updated information would be useful to me. Yet this warning would be even more important for people with asthma or other respiratory problems that prevent them from exercising safely outdoors when air quality remains less than stellar.

People developing just that kind of backyard environmental sensor met with EPA researchers on Sept. 11 and 12 at the Air Pollution Sensor Evaluation and Collaboration event. The workshop allowed companies and individuals developing environmental sensors to better understand the rigorous processes EPA uses to gather high-quality data for environmental research.

Ron Williams, an EPA research chemist in Research Triangle Park, led the workshop as part of the EPA Innovation Team’s Apps and Sensors for Air Pollution (ASAP). ASAP is an initiative to promote the development and use of customized, real-time information for communities and to empower residents to connect environmental protection with human health.

“One of the needs we saw was that the people developing low-cost environmental air pollution monitors and other sensors lacked the technical resources to fully evaluate their new technologies,” he said.

To that end, nine teams from the U.S., France and Germany were invited to have their sensors evaluated by EPA. 

Williams and his team will spend the next several months testing and calibrating the nine sensors under a variety of conditions. The team will share the findings in a final report next summer. (Note: the collaboration is not a contest and EPA will not endorse any device.)

Those reports might lay the groundwork for a near-term future where anyone who spends time outside—runners, cyclists, gardeners, hammock enthusiasts—will benefit from the added knowledge of their home air quality monitors.

About the author:  Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.