A Google Street View car equipped with Aclima sensors.
Photograph by Carlo Acenas
By Katie Fehrenbacher
July 28, 2015

While Google’s Street View cars have been busy snapping images of roads across the globe, including some of the most remote locations on Earth, a small handful of the smart vehicles have been quietly gathering data on something that’s much harder to see: air pollution.

Three of Google’s Street View cars were equipped with sensors from San Francisco startup Aclima and the roving sensor-laden vehicles spent a month driving around Denver last year, testing the air quality. The cars spent 750 hours on the city’s streets and collected 150 million data points about levels of various air pollutants, many of them caused directly and indirectly by gas-powered cars and fossil fuel-based power plants. The test was done in collaboration with NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

A key point of the test was to validate seven-year-old Aclima’s environmental sensor tech, which is a first step for the startup to offer the environmental sensors more widely. The company uses algorithms, big data analytics and machine learning to make its sensor data highly accurate. The company also makes it own hardware and has been developing what it says is the world’s smallest particulate matter sensor in collaboration with the EPA and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab.

Aclima says the data from its Google Street View test successfully correlated with the EPA’s air pollution data, gathered by stationary sensors, of the Denver area. The test collected data about levels of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, methane, ozone, black carbon, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds.

Aclima's sensor networks have been embedded in 3 Google Street View cars.
Image courtesy of Aclima.

In the fall Aclima and Google plan to map the San Francisco Bay Area using its sensor-covered Street View cars. Scientists and researchers can contact the startup to learn more about how to collaborate on accessing and using that data.

Aclima was founded by Davida Herzl and her family in 2008, and the company only began to talk publicly about what it’s been up to about a month ago. The group, which hasn’t raised any funding from outside investors, first started working with Google in 2010, and built Google an indoor air sensor network to monitor air quality in 21 of Google’s buildings.

 

Google used the same type of system from inside its offices, adapted to collect the outdoor air data from its Street View cars. Down the road if more cars are embedded with these types of sensors, much more accurate maps of air pollution data could be created and ultimately used to help reduce the pollutants in urban areas.

With the majority of the world now living in cities, air quality is becoming an increasing important issue. Particularly in some of the largest, fastest-growing cities in the world, like those in China. Better, and more, data will be crucial to helping cities combat the growing amount of air pollution causing human health problems, and causing global warming.

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