With this new technology, city government can see how air quality may differ from street to street. - Photo of New York City via Unsplash/Zach Miles

With this new technology, city government can see how air quality may differ from street to street.

Photo of New York City via Unsplash/Zach Miles

New York City has launched CityScanner, a pilot program that will use city fleet vehicles to test local air quality. Five vehicles that serve the South Bronx will be equipped with sensors that collect air quality data, which is often used by city government to identify problem areas, determine causes of poor air quality, and make decisions to improve air quality.

The city’s existing municipal fixed-sensor network — the New York City Community Air Survey — tracks six different kinds of air pollution and how levels vary by neighborhood. But mobile sensors allow the city to collect hyper-local data on fine particulates.

“NYC Fleet is one of the nation’s largest adopters of telematics technology,” said Keith Kerman, NYC chief fleet officer and Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) deputy commissioner. “Air quality monitoring through CityScanner will work in conjunction with our telematics solution, adding an exciting new dimension to our efforts to use data to make the city cleaner and safer.”

Using a new technology developed by the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), CityScanner is based on small, solar-powered sensors affixed on top of vehicles that use a laser-based technology to detect pollutants in the air at an unprecedented level of space and time resolution. This information is used by environmental scientists to dynamically detect pollution hotspots and air quality trends in the city.

Benjamin Leon of the Department of Sanitation poses with a fleet vehicle fitted with an air quality monitoring device. - Photo courtesy of New York City

Benjamin Leon of the Department of Sanitation poses with a fleet vehicle fitted with an air quality monitoring device.

Photo courtesy of New York City

This pilot program builds upon the success of similar pilots spearheaded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Houston, London, and West Oakland, Calif.

"Public vehicles equipped with state-of-the-art sensors are a powerful, underutilized tool in the battle against air pollution, given the vast urban footprint they cover," said Harold Rickenbacker Ph.D., Environmental Defense Fund clean air & innovation manager and advisor on the CityScanner project. "Municipal vehicles performing their routine jobs are capable of detecting pollution at a block-by-block level, giving policymakers unprecedented levels of data to inform environmental and public health decisions. This innovative project has the potential to position New York City as a leader with other cities, the tech community, and the private sector."

In a previous study, MIT deployed City Scanner sensors on trash trucks in the City of Cambridge, Mass. Over a 12-month period, the sensors collected more than 1.6 million data points, which helped the city map hotspots and gain insights regarding sources of pollution.

At the time, MIT shared this video to showcase the technology:

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