Necessity is the mother of invention, as the old saying goes. And for Birdi, an Internet-connected smoke detector that also measures air quality, Hurricane Sandy was the mother of innovation.
"My grandma was in the evacuation zone and the power was out," says Birdi cofounder Mark Belinsky. "When I could finally get there to see if she was okay, I found out that she was heating her home with gas from her stove." His 90-year-old grandmother had a carbon monoxide detector in her smoke alarm, but it had no way to communicate with Belinsky to tell him when it sensed trouble. "I looked around and said we have all these sensing devices, why don’t we make them sense a lot more and pack them with a lot more sensors so they can do what we need them to do?"
The result is Birdi, a smoke detector that is similar to the Nest Protect but with a few key differences. It works over wifi and links to home phones via the internet, which means it can make emergency calls via landline. The alerts can be set up in a number of different languages, including Spanish, French, Afrikaans, Chinese, or Russian. The company will mail you a new battery when yours is running low. And the alarm can be turned off directly from the app (no need to wave a towel around).
But the feature that really kicks Birdi out of Nest's territory is its environmental sensors. In addition to functioning as a smoke and carbon monoxide detector, Birdi can detect indoor air pollution, dust, and humidity. The company is also designing an app that offers recommendations based on what those sensors detect. "When we looked at it we said, 'Why would we only sense emergency when we can also sense whether what you’re breathing in is healthy and help you know what to do about that?'" Belinsky told Fast Company just before his Indiegogo campaign launched. "There are a lot of quantified self products but there are very few pushing the dial with regard to behavior change."
In addition to functioning as a smoke and carbon monoxide detector, Birdi can detect indoor air pollution, dust, and humidity.
Air quality is something worth monitoring: It is estimated that poor air quality results in 50,000 deaths in the U.S. each year and, according to the World Health Organization, it is a leading cause of cancer worldwide.
"Indoor pollution is two to eight times more dangerous than outside pollution," says Belinsky. "With this you’ll get to see what to see what the air quality is like in your baby’s room, in the kitchen, in your bedroom. You can imagine if you have a bedroom that is facing the street, you might get a lot of pollution coming in from buses and exhaust. Similarly if your room is against the backyard, you might have a lot of pollen coming in or particulate matter causing a lot of allergies and respiratory problems. We’re tracking particulate matter so we can see things like how much dust is in your house. The idea is to make it actionable, if we know that the air quality inside is bad, it might tell you to open a window. But if we know the air quality outside is worse than inside we’ll say maybe that’s not such a good idea."
For those who want to go deeper, Birdi plans to create an API for looking at local and national trends. Anyone can analyze data that comes in from anywhere that the sensors are placed, anywhere in the world. "Right now we’re taking public data from the EPA and they have air quality sensors that we just don’t have access to because they’re really expensive and take a lot of energy. They’re testing things like ozone and sulphur dioxide," says Belinsky. "What we’re creating is a new data layer that is affordable enough that consumers can buy them and will give us more granular data on a street-by-street basis. This is about how can we become smarter about what we’re breathing in so we can all work together to be healthier and safer together."
Birdi is already in discussions with the San Francisco city government and the office of entrepreneurship and innovation to place sensors around the city, says Belinsky. But it remains to be seen how well Birdi will fare in the market—broad-scale environmental sensing is a new frontier in the Internet of things.
In the meantime, Birdi's draw is all about grandma.
When the sensor detects a problem, it will call her up and ask "Is this a false alarm?" "Is this a real emergency?" or "Do you not know?" It’s really smart. If she immediately hangs up the call, it will escalate the issue by calling 911 through the call center. If she says on the line, it will ask her to call the authorities. If she says that it’s a false alarm, it will silence the buzzer from going off she won’t hear the beep beep beep. And if it’s something more drastic like carbon monoxide, it’ll give her instructions on how to stay safe—in Russian. "I’m a New Yorker so I’m used to an international city," says Belinsky. "When we’re translating into all these languages, what I’m really thinking about is all the people who speak all of those different languages in my neighborhood."
Belinsky will also get a push notification when the alarm goes off. "If Grandma says she doesn’t know if it's a real emergency and everyone else in the house says they don’t know, it will escalate. But if she says, 'I don’t know' and I say 'It’s a real emergency,' then it’s an alarm," he explains.
"Even if I see that it’s a false alarm, it reminds me to check in on her, find out what she’s cooking and how she’s doing," says Belinsky. "She’s 90. I want to know she’s okay."