While Google Street View cars cruise around city streets snapping photos, now they can also double as mobile air quality stations, tracking smog block by block.
Aclima, a San Francisco-based sensor startup, partnered with Google Earth Outreach to start adding sensors to the cars. As they drive, the cars can take second-by-second measurements of pollutants like ozone, black carbon, and methane.
In most cities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency relies on a small network of stationary sensors to track bad air quality. But it’s hard to know if the sensors are in the right places–and if they’re missing critical areas. If you want to know the air quality on your own street, you probably can’t get an exact answer.
“Mobile sensing allows us to get that sort of quick snapshot of an entire city–to be able to understand what’s happening at different spatial resolution, across an entire swath of a city,” says Davida Herzl, co-founder and CEO of Aclima.
The team recently piloted the tech in Denver, with the EPA’s help in planning out the best driving routes. Like the networks in other cities, the current monitoring stations in Denver aren’t densely distributed. “What we saw is that you really fill in the gaps, you really fill in the pixels of the picture, and suddenly you can really see the variability,” Herzl says. “You can see street by street or neighborhood by neighborhood, or along the freeway corridor versus not.”
Over hundreds of hours of driving, the cars collected 150 million data points on pollution, and correlated that with EPA data to create a visual map of all the invisible pollutants in the air. “We can see the pollution as it’s moving through the city in real time with the system,” she says.
After proving that the system could work, the startup plans to add sensors to another fleet of Street View cars in the Bay Area to map out a larger area, testing how many cars it takes to paint a full picture of the pollution. They’ll also work with scientists and nonprofits to figure out how best to use the data they collect.
Ultimately, they hope to add sensors to Street View cars around the world–and make the results available when anyone opens up a Google map. “That’s the long term vision we share,” says Herzl. “To make this data as available as the weather or traffic.”