Turning smartphones into air quality monitors

Intel Labs is showing off technology that would allow consumers to collect and analyze environmental data and then share it over the Internet.

Intel Labs is showing off technology that could make smartphones a lot smarter by integrating technology that monitors ambient air quality.

As part of an annual Open House on Wednesday at the UC Berkeley campus, Intel Labs Berkeley is demonstrating the most tantalizing fruits of its research, including Common Sense, a technology that would allow consumers to collect and analyze environmental data and then share it over the Internet.

"It's about air quality," said Anthony Joseph, director of Intel Labs Berkeley. "We've developed a portable device a little bit larger than a cell phone (see photo) and it collects information about nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, and ozone."

Joseph said it also has a GPS sensor and GSM radio to send back geolocated data.

"As you go about your day, it can monitor the air quality around you," Joseph said. "You can collect all of that data, process it, and then share that data with users."

The technology offers more granular data compared with the "coarse-grained" readings provided by devices deployed the California Air Resources Board or the Environmental Protection Agency, Joseph said. "This gives you block by block (environmental) information," he said.

And Intel Labs is already seriously considering practical application. "We are looking at a number of different options," he said. "One would be to produce a large run of these. We've had a lot of requests to purchase these." Intel Labs already did an experimental deployment on street sweepers, according to Joseph.

Intel Common Sense device detects ambient environment conditions: technology that could one day finds it way into a smartphone.
Intel 'Common Sense' device detects ambient environment conditions: technology that could one day finds it way into a smartphone. Intel

And smartphones? "Another long-term idea is embedding these sensors in cell phones," he said. "The phone has communications, it has GPS, and you're just adding a few sensors to collect environment data."

Joseph said Intel is also working on "machine learning" technology that would be used to develop models that determine where the pollution is coming from. "Trying to figure out how did the pollutants make it here," he said, as a way to find the original source of the pollution.

The hardware is currently based on Berkeley "Mote" sensor technology. Future devices could be running on Intel Atom chips, he said.

Intel Labs is also working with UC Berkeley to develop a "very-low-cost particulate matter senor," Joseph said. It would detect matter from wildfires and diesel exhaust, for example. Currently, this kind of sensor technology costs "many thousands of dollars," he said. "We're trying develop something that is a tiny fraction of that cost." A prototype will be on display Wednesday at the Berkeley Open House.

About the author

Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.

 

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