Green Robots Could Help Combat Air Pollution in 2022
Air pollution is one of the most pressing global health issues today, but robots may be able to monitor or even reverse it. One of the biggest challenges in combating air pollution is reliable, scalable monitoring infrastructure, which remains expensive. Robots can help solve this issue and make air pollution tracking easy, accessible and accurate.
The State of Air Pollution in 2022
The World Health Organization estimates that over 4 million people die each year due to polluted ambient air exposure. Part of what makes it so deadly is its seeming invisibility. Air doesn’t have to appear smoky or congested to be contaminated.
This problem is not exclusive to developing countries, either. An estimated 40% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution. Of that 40%, people of color are three times more likely to be exposed to contamination than white people. Bad air quality is also far more likely in poor neighborhoods, which tend to be closer to sources of pollution.
There are numerous sources for this pollution, including industrial processes, motor traffic, factories and refineries, power plants, and natural and agricultural sources. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently recognized a new source of hazardous air pollution, 1-bromopropane or n-propyl bromide, the first addition to the Clean Air Act Amendments since 1990. This is one of a growing number of legislative actions working to combat air pollution.
Robots Fighting Air Pollution Today
Could robots help stem the tide of air pollution worldwide? Scientists think so. Several robots have already been tested or released with optimistic results. Robotics are leading the way in the fight against air pollution in the land, sea and sky.
1. Monitoring City Air Quality
One of the most important roles for robots in air pollution is monitoring. Today, most cities use networks of stationary monitoring stations or webs of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors to monitor air pollution. These certainly help, but they often have spotty coverage and are expensive to install.
Price and range are important factors in combating air pollution because poorer communities tend to be hit the hardest by pollution. Drones could be the perfect solution since they could monitor an entire city autonomously, easily solving the issue of scale.
One study conducted by ITMO University in St. Petersburg, Russia, utilized aerial drones with specialized environmental monitoring sensors. Through testing there and in Togliatti, the researchers achieved widespread air quality. The drones autonomously analyzed air samples and collected data over large distances.
2. Collecting Microplastics
Not all sources of air pollution come from things like smoke or motor emissions. Plastic that breaks down in the ocean is actually a major contributor to particle air pollution. Microplastics are even being found in the air in remote mountain regions, far from any obvious source. Scientists are still studying the health effects of inhaling microplastics.
The BeBot robot was designed to help control the spread of microplastics by sifting them out of the sand on beaches. Alex Schulze, founder of 4ocean, a partner on the project, commented, “You can’t see a lot of [the microplastics], right now it seems like a pretty clean beach … but there are small microplastic pieces that have broken down that you can’t see.”
The BeBot can detect and remove these particles. This could be instrumental in reducing the amount of microplastics in the air if implemented on a large scale.
3. Monitoring Agricultural Air Pollution
Agriculture is vital to global health and food supplies, but it’s also a source of air pollution. Fertilizers and animal waste are the primary sources, releasing ammonia into the air that can turn into particulate air pollution when combined with other sources. Air quality in these remote areas is notoriously difficult to monitor.
Luckily, robots offer a solution. Specialized drones are being implemented for monitoring pollution in remote agricultural settings. The Field Flux robot tests soil on farms for nitrous oxide, which is over 300 times more dangerous to the atmosphere than CO2. This data can help farmers pinpoint areas that need different fertilizers or soil treatments.
4. Next-Gen: Healing Air Pollution
Robots may one day be able to do more than monitor air pollution. The right tools and research could allow drones could help heal air pollution. For example, a robot might be developed to remove particulate pollution from the air, similar to what the BeBot does with microplastics on beaches.
Helping the World Breathe Easier
Healing the climate and reducing pollution are among the most critical issues facing the Earth today. Robots have helped us explore other worlds, deliver goods around the globe and conduct crucial surgeries. They are now instrumental in the fight against air pollution, advancing air quality monitoring and potentially saving millions of lives.
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