Why is Air Quality Monitoring Going Mobile?
Nov 01, 2023 Dr Tess Skyrme
In recent years, there has been significant interest in the use of low-cost gas sensors affixed to lampposts, trees, and traffic lights within smart cities to monitor outdoor air quality. Yet before this industry has really taken off, there are already signs of a trend away from the adoption of expansive sensor networks towards mobile platforms. In this article, IDTechEx will give an overview of some of the key drivers of this industry shift and the impact this is expected to have on the multi-billion-dollar environmental gas sensor market.
Mobile platforms reduce infrastructure demand
Many local authorities have experimented with introducing networks of low-cost air quality sensors into their cities to monitor pollution. Such sensor networks providers promised to reduce capital expenditure compared with incumbent equipment while also offering access to higher spatial resolution data. Yet, in many instances, the adoption of these sensor networks has been short-lived or limited in size.
Through multiple interviews with stakeholders in outdoor air quality monitoring, IDTechEx has learned that infrastructure and calibration requirements create a barrier to continued adoption in the smart city market. The reality of implementing a large network without an existing ecosystem of third-party support has posed a real challenge.
Mobile platforms offer a reduced infrastructure demand compared to large, fixed sensor networks. For example, gas sensor equipment mounted into vehicles overcomes the bureaucracy associated with connecting to the national grid and is easier to maintain than those mounted at height.
Moreover, calibrating one piece of high-quality equipment instead of hundreds of sensors is less time-intensive. This advantage is clearly appreciated by Aclima in the US; they have recently pivoted away from low-cost fixed sensor networks towards a mobile solution.
Fixed networks reduce partnership options and business model agility
Another challenge with the fixed sensor network approach to air quality monitoring in smart cities is the lack of clear business model solutions. While there is demand for further understanding of the relationship between air quality and urban design, traffic management, citizen health, and the climate - unlocking the value of gas sensor data for these applications isn't easy.
In most instances, local authority approaches to air quality monitoring are driven by legal requirements, which currently only require periodic measurements easily taken using the existing installed equipment. Moreover, local authorities are the clearest end-users of air quality data, and so as the main procurers of monitoring hardware, they are unable to easily monetize the data any further.
On the other hand, business model innovation using mobile platforms appears easier. For example, one method of reducing outdoor pollution is the electrification of vehicles and the use of public transport. As such, air quality sensor data is increasingly included in the metrics collected by battery-powered fleets of delivery vans, e-scooters, buses, and trains. In this instance, much of the value is in collecting evidence of the positive environmental impact of electrification compared to fuel vehicles.
Whether these companies can create solutions that can also capture the true value of the high-spatial-resolution data they collect is yet to be seen. However, there is now a global search for new markets and large data sets on which to unlock the power of artificial intelligence, and as such, air quality data has the potential to become a stronger product line in its own right in the near future.
Gas sensor technology continues to shrink
The third and final driver towards mobile air quality monitoring is the continuous shrinking of gas sensor technology. To date, the power consumption, size, and, crucially, cost have limited the adoption of this technology into mobile (portable) consumer devices such as wearables.
However, for many years, leading gas sensor manufacturers have continued to develop smaller and smaller solutions - and the latest generation to emerge is directly targeting wearables OEMs. This includes Bosch's latest product, an inlet-free optical particle counter hundreds of times smaller than incumbents. Some start-ups have tried to penetrate this market in the past, for example, using tiny printed sensor solutions, but have struggled to find the economies of scale necessary to compete on cost.
As with many new wearable sensors, many more potential consumers are likely waiting until they are integrated by their preferred brand, e.g. Apple or Samsung, before using the data. As such, despite a period of disillusionment, the next generation of miniaturized gas sensors could now see the trend towards mobile air quality monitoring consolidated by a mass-market for smart-watches after all.
Outdoor pollution sensors industry roadmap: Source: IDTechEx
To summarize, mobile air quality monitoring solutions reduce the infrastructure demands of fixed solutions while also creating more scope for business model innovation. Technology development of further sensor miniaturization is also set to play an important role in expanding air-quality monitoring capabilities into wearable devices.
For more insight into the environmental gas sensor market, see IDTechEx's latest report, "Environmental Gas Sensor Market 2024-2034: Technology, Trends, Forecasts, Players". IDTechEx has been covering the broad topic of sensor technology since 2008, interviewing a wide range of major players over the years, attending multiple conferences, and delivering consulting projects and workshops on this topic.
Trends in air quality monitoring and more are covered in this latest dedicated environmental gas sensor report, which evaluates the performance of ten technologies in detail - comparing their key characteristics and compatibility to five application areas. It includes over 30 company profiles from interviews with both major manufacturers and start-ups specializing in a range of different technologies, plus ten-year market forecasts.
For more information on this report, please visit www.IDTechEx.com/EGS, or for the full portfolio of sensors research available from IDTechEx, please visit www.IDTechEx.com/Research/Sensors.