Environmental Sensors: A Priority for Smart Cities

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By Dominique Bonte | 3Q 2018 | IN-5233

Environmental sensors are fast becoming a key component of smart cities’ infrastructure as concerns about the impact of various forms of air pollution on citizens’ health increase. Air quality was retained as a key implementation criterion in ABI Research’s recently published Smart City Ranking. It cost cities such as Dubai and Beijing important points in the overall score.

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Relevance of Air Quality Measurements in Urban Contexts


Environmental sensors are fast becoming a key component of smart cities’ infrastructure as concerns about the impact of various forms of air pollution on citizens’ health increase. Air quality was retained as a key implementation criterion in ABI Research’s recently published Smart City Ranking. It cost cities such as Dubai and Beijing important points in the overall score.

Dubai’s Air Quality Monitoring Network (AAQM) continuously monitors critical pollutants such as Carbon Monoxide (CO), Particulate Matter (PM10/PM25), Sulfur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), and Ozone (O3), and results are evaluated based on air quality standards and objectives. Air pollution caused by particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter is often referred to as fine dust and represents an acute health hazard.

The more widespread the collection of air quality data, the more it increasingly unveils pollution levels that are frequently exceeding internationally agreed-upon thresholds. One of the main—though not only—culprits are vehicles with diesel engines, prompting cities across the globe to start banning them from their centers through the creation of emission zones. Cities like Paris already have decided on a timetable for banning all Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) vehicles as part of zero-emission urban zones.

Next-Generation “as a Service,” Mobile, Multipoint, and Crowdsourced Environmental Sensor Networks 


Just like any other smart city infrastructure, the deployment of environmental sensors faces financing and implementation challenges. But this is about to change with the emergence of a range of new technologies, approaches, and paradigms that drive faster installation along with the availability of granular air quality sensor networks at lower costs.

  • Multipoint Smart City Solutions: Increasingly, smart street lights, smart bins, smart kiosks, and connected bus stops are equipped with air quality sensors at decreased incremental cost, leveraging already existing connectivity, power, and mechanical support. Combining use case and applications by repurposing shared system hardware contributes to shorter Return on Investment (ROI) periods, not only for air quality sensors but also for all involved public services.
  • Smart Home Air Quality Sensor Sharing: The wider trend of leveraging existing assets by sharing and crowdsourcing smart home systems like surveillance cameras and energy monitoring systems with utility companies and city governments can also be applied to (external) air quality sensors. This is covered in ABI Research’s report The Emerging Role for Smart Homes in the Smart City (AN-2691).
  • Mobile Air Quality Sensors: The arrival of smart mobility fleets—driverless or other—opens the possibility of equipping them with air quality sensors and using them as mobile air quality monitoring agents and environmental sensor networks. The city of London is already experimenting with mobile air quality sensors, with two Google StreetView cars fitted with sensors from U.K. vendor Air Monitors that record air quality readings every 30 meters. It is part of a wider initiative to build a hyperlocal air quality sensor network in the U.K. capital. A similar project was set up in San Francisco’s Bay Area three years ago using sensors from the supplier Aclima. Using roaming sensors allows increasing measurement granularity to levels not achievable with just static sensors.
  • Air Quality Sensors as a Service: Nokia’s recently announced Sensing as a Service platform allows cities, public safety authorities, and governments to deploy capital expenditure– (CAPEX-)free environmental data analytics capabilities. Sensors are installed on existing base station sites and leverage Nokia’s Internet of Things (IoT) real-time monitoring platform. Additionally, Sensing as a Service features blockchain-enabled smart contracts, allowing operators to monetize data via secure microtransactions.

The paradigms mentioned above allow city governments to either accelerate ROI, avoid spending CAPEX, or leverage existing (private) assets. Additionally, they can rely on private actors willing to contribute financially to green tech projects for corporate image and/or strategic investment purposes.

Closing the Environmental Loop, and Structural Solutions to Clean Air


Measuring and monitoring air quality is just the first step. What matters more is what city governments are doing with the data. Some advanced smart cities are starting to implement “closed-loop” approaches; for example, rerouting traffic around schools during periods of dangerous levels of air pollution. This takes the use of air quality “intelligence” from long-term statistical analysis to near real-time response management. However, this still remains a reactive, symptom-fighting approach. What is really needed is a more structural solution that removes the root causes of the various forms of air pollution.

While drastic measures to ban diesel engines or even all ICE-vehicles are being considered and even planned, cities need to embrace and promote new forms of shared, driverless mobility as an absolute priority to reduce the number of vehicles operating in city centers. As explained in detail in ABI Research’s recent report Smart Cities and Transportation Electrification (AN-2587), massive adoption of electric vehicles will only materialize through smart mobility fleets and not through direct consumer adoption.

While vehicle electrification and other forms of electric mobility such as scooters, motorbikes, and shuttles are instrumental in improving air quality, the generation of electric energy itself also needs to be clean, whether it takes place though microgrids within city centers or through massive windmills and solar panel farms outside the city. This forms part of a wider push toward carbon neutrality and net zero carbon footprints on a building, manufacturing plant, and city level.

However, it is absolutely critical to measure air quality in the first place in order to have objective data and intelligence. This data can then be used to raise air pollution awareness to a city or national level and to start formulating clean air strategies. All knowledge starts with measurements—to measure is to know. On an international level, the E.U.’s European Environment Agency (EEA) collects, aggregates, tracks, and publishes air pollution data from a wide range of sources on its website, European Air Quality Index (EAQI). Similarly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tracks air quality data collected at outdoor monitors across the United States.


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