10 Environmental Sensors That Go Along With You

iGeigle dock system

Joi Ito / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Over the past few years, the world of clean technology has seen a major influx of environmental sensor technologies. From ones that you can make yourself to those that are inspired by nature, the field has included many interesting takes on a technology that is proving to be more and more important, but the most significant trend in environmental sensors has been in personal, portable devices that measure air and water quality from our pockets or wrists.

By making these sensors small and usually Bluetooth or Wi-Fi enabled, merely carrying out our normal daily routines could make citizen scientists of us all, significantly increasing the amount and precision of environmental data through crowdsourcing.

From smartphone embedded sensors to those you wear or plug in wherever you are, this new wave of personal environmental sensors has the potential to really change the way that data is gathered, analyzed and consumed. Some day soon, everyone may be walking around with one or more sensors with them, giving scientists and everyone else the ability to see highly localized, real-time data on things like temperature, NO2 and particulate levels in the air and even detect toxic chemical leaks.

What makes that so important is that relying on the data coming from the government's environmental sensors at their monitoring stations, doesn't give the whole picture to someone who's living close to an interstate or parking garage or near an industrial facility.

Having specific, real-time information can not only let someone with asthma know areas to avoid on any given day, but gives scientists a better picture of where, when and why pollution is happening, which is necessary to take steps to make it better.

Below are 10 of the most interesting portable sensor technologies we've come across in the past few years.

1. AirBot

The AirBot is a "particle counting robot" developed by Carnegie Mellon University that monitors airborne pollutants that can cause breathing problems like asthma. It's pocket-sized so that people could have it on them wherever they go, keeping tabs on particulates that could cause respiratory problems. Six prototypes have already been built and the lab plans to have it ready for the market next year at a price of $99.

2. WaterBot

Also developed by Carnegie Mellon, the WaterBot tests for water quality. One end can be dipped into a water source like a lake or stream and then it will upload pollution data to the web via a ZigBee-installed module so that everyone who lives near that water source can stay informed. According to the WaterBot website, the data is "collected at a high frequency, allowing the detection of events that are invisible to other types of sensors."

3. Sensordrone

sensordrone unit attached to a car key next to a smartphone showing the app data
Smart Citizens / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Launched from a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Sensordrone is a tool that can sense many things in your environment, including gasses, temperatures, humidity and more and pairs with your smart phone. You run specific apps to test for each thing, but with no extra dials or configurations. Just sync the device with your iPhone and choose what you information you want to receive.

4. Lapka Environmental Monitor

The Lapka is a set of environmental sensors that plug into your iPhone and can detect radiation, electromagnetic feedback, nitrates in raw foods, and temperature and humidity, so not only can they give you some simple environmental data, but they can also tell you if your food is organic.

5. Sensaris

This sensor you wear on your wrist gives instant air quality measurements for wherever you are. The sensors can use Bluetooth to send data to mobile phones, making data transmission easy. Ensuring that enough people wear them to get a good amount of data could be tricky, but people have proven they're interested in devices like this, so who knows? This could be a new fashion statement.

6. Air Quality Egg

Another of these technologies that made a big splash on Kickstarter was the Air Quality Egg. While not wearable or able to fit in your pocket, the egg is an at-home environmental sensor kit that gathers very high resolution readings of NO2 and CO concentrations from wherever it's placed. The device consists of a sensing system that gets plugged into the wall outside your home and communicates wirelessly to the egg-shaped base station inside, which transmits the data to airqualityegg.com where it all gets mapped (if you register for it to do so) for anyone to get a quick look at air quality readings in their town, region or even the globe.

7. Electronic Nose Sensor

This is a technology that's not available yet, but has huge potential applications for the environment, human health and national security. Developed by University of California Riverside, the "electronic nose" is a multi-sensor device able to detect small amounts of hazardous airborne chemicals like pesticides, combustion emissions, gas leaks, and chemical warfare agents. Future iterations will include Bluetooth and Wi-Fi capabilities so that it can automatically upload and sync the data it finds. The developers are also working on getting it down to the size of a fingernail. The designers see the device being used in three different platforms: a handheld device, a wearable device and in a smartphone.

8. PressureNet

PressureNet is an Android-powered app that measures atmospheric pressure, and provides those measurements to scientists who in turn use it to better understand what is going on with the weather. The app uses atmospheric sensors that are already in many Android phones. Users are alerted to what data is being collected when the app is open and how it will be used and then they can decide whether they want to participate. The data goes to a website where it could be used to make better weather predictions or aid in studies looking at the effect of atmospheric pressure on other environmental systems.

9. Broadcom Microchip

This ultra-accurate microchip for smartphones that would take advantage of the huge amount of sensors that smartphones now contain to gather precise information on a user's surroundings. This chip is getting strong interest from companies who want access to more information about consumers, but it also potentially has great applications for environmental science. The chip can receive signals from global navigation satellites, cell-phone towers, and Wi-Fi hot spots, and also input from gyroscopes, accelerometers, step counters, altimeters and atmospheric pressure sensors, all of which could provide scientists with precious data to monitor and mediate pollutants and other environmental threats.

10. iGeigie

Developed after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, the iGeigie is a a portable Geiger counter that docks with an iPhone. By calling the phone, users can listen to clicks that indicate how much radiation is in the area. The major goal of the developers is to create a sensor network for nuclear radiation where data could be mapped and government groups, NGOs and widespread citizen scientists alike could all be sources making sure no potentially affected areas are left out.