sensor apps

My Air, My Health, My Future

The best innovations rely on disruption, a catalyst for change in a world of status quo.

Disruptive innovation is the theory behind the My Air, My Health Challenge, sponsored by EPA and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The challenge encouraged Americans to consider the future of air quality and human health by developing small, wearable air quality sensors that also detect how our bodies respond to the air we breathe.

Two major ideas drive the effort to combine air sensor technologies and health data. First, sensors mirror the rise of computers and smartphones – more power in less space at lower prices. Second, the air we breathe affects our health, but that data changes constantly as we move.

All four finalist teams in the challenge received $15,000, and the teams continue to transform their designs into portable sensor systems that measure air quality and corresponding physiological responses to that air quality.

Below, leaders of the four teams talk about how they’re pursuing the priorities of sensor portability, data accuracy, and low cost for the final design.

  • Aaron Hechmer and his team chose to focus their challenge efforts on the aspects of air sensor data and cost.  “This project, it really is sharing health information. To make [sensors] statistically robust, they’ve got to be in a lot of hands. To be in a lot of hands they’ve got to be cheap, particularly if you’re trying to serve communities. People don’t want to pay $5,000.”
  • Michael Heimbinder leads a team designing an air sensor that measures fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide. The team uses a chest strap sensor to look for connections between air pollutant exposure and heart rate variability, the interval between heart beats.  The team completed a first prototype air monitor and will build five more for volunteers to wear and collect data. Heimbinder says the next hurdle is visualizing the data by “displaying thousands and thousands of measurement points as dots on a map.”
  • Guy Shechter and his team view the long-term scientific prospects of the challenge. The team’s sensor will tease out links between ultrafine particulate pollution and obstructive respiratory diseases such as COPD and asthma. “The exciting thing for us is this lack of science in this area and our belief that with the technology we have, with the scientific minds we have thinking about this, that we can actually do something interesting and new.”
  • David Kuller’s team has created T-shirts sewn with sensors. Owners can wash the shirts as long as they remove the battery and the air sensor, about the size of a matchbox, prior to washing.  To measure health indicators, the shirts use an elastic strip of silver yarn that was originally designed for monitoring newborn babies. “We knew about the existence of these stretch sensors but hadn’t put them to test in any laboratory way.”

Stay tuned for an update this summer. The challenge winner will receive an award of $100,000 to be announced in June 2013 at Health Datapalooza IV.

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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A Breath of Fresh Air

By Dustin Renwick

Some of my friends love the scent of exhaust, but I wrinkle my nose at every junker car’s invisible comet tail of unpleasant fumes.

They’ve told me it’s sweet. I think it stinks.

Yet I’ve never considered how those odors might affect my health.

From this starting block, EPA joined with the Department of Health and Human Services to advance the exploration of technologies that collect data for our bodies and our surroundings.

Entrepreneurs and innovative solvers around the country submitted designs for portable monitors that link measurements of the air we breathe with metrics for how our bodies react to that air.

The My Air, My Health Challenge announced four finalists last week. Each team or individual will receive $15,000 and develop a working model to test the proposed systems. One winner will be chosen in June and will get $100,000.

Other government agencies have also begun to address this type of personalized healthcare. The Department of Defense will soon explore plans for an application to track wellness in service members.

Current technologies allow people to measure how far they run or how many calories they burned on a walk.

The leap isn’t far to imagine a near-term future where customized health data also includes metrics for air pollutants and our physiological reactions to them.

Until then, I’ll hold my breath.

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Catching the Citizen Science Curve

By Dustin Renwick

Baseball is notorious for overloaded statistics.

Data doesn’t equate to knowledge, but data does set the stage for better interpretations of a given scenario.

Low-cost environmental sensors represent the next step in air quality monitoring statistics. The hardware revolution that will make these sensors widely available to citizen scientists— volunteers who might work with scientists to collect data—stands squarely on the horizon. But what will happen with all the new data remains unclear.

Ensuring that citizen-recorded measurements are interpreted correctly remains an important point, said Nick Masson, an engineering research assistant at the University of Colorado. Masson attended the September EPA Air Pollution Sensor Evaluation and Collaboration event in Research Triangle Park, NC (see my previous blog post, Sensing the Future).

Tim Dye, senior vice president at Sonoma Technology, said events like the September collaboration engage EPA researchers and sensor developers in conversations about how these devices fit into the larger framework for improving the environment.

For example, problems with data could arise depending on the quality of the sensors located in backyards and porches across the country. For instance, the sensors might not always produce statistically useful results. EPA researchers and their partners need to understand these challenges in order to harness the appropriate data, so policy makers and the public can enjoy the benefits of such information.

With the right type of calibrations, low-cost monitors might fill gaps and supplement federally-regulated data gathered by permanent, high-tech (and expensive) government air quality monitoring stations located across the country, said Michael Heimbinder, executive director of HabitatMap, who attended the September event.

“Inevitably there is going to be a deluge of information collected by citizen scientists,” Heimbinder said. “This information is coming. The question is: How do we grapple with it?”

Scientists and researchers will have to explore questions such as how data collected by non-scientists can help inform health policies, health messaging, or even daily weather forecasts. Through initiatives like the external collaboration event and the March 2013 workshop for sensor developers, academics, DIYers, community groups, and federal, state and local officials, EPA won’t play benchwarmer in the era of citizen science.

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

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Sensors and Sensibility

By Vasu Kilaru

Around us every day are technologies that give us access to more information at our fingertips than any generation has ever had.  As an EPA scientist, I’m pretty thrilled about these innovations and what they mean for environmental protection.

One exciting new initiative in that realm here at EPA is called Apps and Sensors for Air Pollution or ASAP. This new aspect of our research came out of the recognition that the advances in sensor technologies are unfolding at the same amazing pace that we all see with new cellphone and smartphone technologies.

Cellphones already have a variety of sensors built in:  light sensors and proximity sensors to manage display brightness, accelerometers used as switches or to characterize motion, GPS to provide mapping and locational services, compass and gyroscope to provide direction and orientation, microphones for audio, and a camera for video/photography.

These capabilities have led to the logical coupling of other sensors, such as for air pollution monitoring or biometric measurements, with smartphones.

Traditionally, air monitoring technologies were costly to setup and maintain, and therefore were put under the purview of governments (federal and state). Now, new miniature sensor technologies are more affordable and have the advantage of being highly portable. These developments in sensor technology present an exciting new frontier where monitoring will be more democratic and available much more widely. Parallel to these developments are sensors that measure physiological conditions such as heart rate or blood oxygen levels.

Pairing environmental sensors with ones that measure biological conditions could herald a new era for both environmental protection as well as healthcare. Future developments in these sensor technologies ultimately have the capacity to help people make better decisions regarding their environment and their own health.

So we are excited to do our part in bringing new technologies to you.  If you’re going to the World Maker Faire in New York this weekend (September 29-30), stop by our EPA booth, we’d love to talk about how DIYers, makers, inventors can help make a greener future.

About the Author: Vasu Kilaru works in EPA’s Office of Research and Development. He is currently working on the apps and sensors for air pollution initiative (ASAP) helping the Agency develop its strategic role and response to new sensor technology developments.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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A Summer at the Edge

By Tyler Feitshans

Summer at the Edge (SATE), a program sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory and led by Research Director Dr. Rob Williams, brings together high school and college level students to develop technology that benefits both soldiers and citizens. This year at SATE, I was given the unique opportunity to lead a project with help from mentors at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

My team’s project, called Project Tricorder, originated from the idea of adding external hardware to smartphones and tablets to collect environmental data on a large scale.  I saw this as a clear opportunity to help monitor the world around us through specialized environmental sensors.  Our student team and our mentors from EPA’s Innovation Team shared an interest and excitement about developing this idea.

Sensor Prototype

The overall goal of our project is to develop a nationwide sensor grid, measuring everything from air pollution levels to water quality.  Project Tricorder aims to make the grid work with any sensor, but we are also developing a sensor prototype. This prototype, called a Tricorder, is a cheap sensor pod with removable sensor bays that allow users to quickly adapt the device to detect the information relevant in a given location. Testing of the prototype has included simple environmental measurements, such as temperature and wind speed, as well as information related to health monitoring, such as carbon monoxide and radiation levels.

Our sensor grid allows Tricorder users to upload data and photos from any location with cell phone access.  As data is gathered, it can be displayed in two ways: (1) a graph showing data trends over time; and (2) a map displaying locational data using Google maps.  The readily-available data from our project will help communities and policy-makers make quick decisions related to local air quality.

I think the development of Tricorders that work with mobile phones will be a valuable tool in knowing what’s happening in the world around us and will create a number of environmental benefits in the future.  This technology also has a number of other applications, specifically in the realms of healthcare and security.

If you’re interested in learning more about our project, you can check out @EPAresearch today for updates from the end of the year SATE Open House. Our EPA mentors will be sending updates and photos of the event via Twitter.

You can also check out a video we made by clicking the link below.

Summer at the Edge – Project Tricorder Video

About the author: Tyler Feitshans will be a Junior Computer Engineering student at Ohio Northern University this Fall.   He is currently the Team Lead for Project Tricorder and began participating in the SATE program as a high school student.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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