Washington’s ‘Living Laboratory’ to Build Out Its Sensor Network

Nine sensors are set to be deployed across the University District in Spokane, Wash., where researchers have been studying air quality in an urban setting.

by / January 17, 2018
Internet connected air-quality sensors to be deployed across University District in Spokane, Wash. Shutterstock
How smoke from wildfires affects the air in urban settings will come under a close microscope in a “living laboratory” in the Pacific Northwest.
 
A network of nine air-quality sensors will be installed into streetlights and on the tops of buildings across Spokane, Wash.’s, 700-acre University District, an urban area made up of neighborhoods and multiple universities. The sensors, three of which are already installed, will measure and analyze the area’s temperature, humidity, ozone levels, as well as smoke from wildfires.
 
“The data from streetlights will be used with advanced weather and air-quality models to improve understanding of micro-climates in urban areas,” Spokane Mayor David Condon explained. “It will also provide unique and valuable information about how forest fires, which are common in the region, affect air quality and pollution in urban environments.”
 
The Smart and Connected Streetlights Pilot is part of the project known as Urbanova, and is a partnership with Itron, a maker of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and Avista, a leader in sustainable energy technologies. The smart streetlights have also been outfitted with energy saving LED lighting and motion-detecting so that the light is brightest when activity is nearby.
 
“Really, what’s exciting about Urbanova is it really starts from the place of what does the citizen feel?” said Condon.
 
“What information does the citizen want?” he continued.
 
“They want air-quality information. They want the lights to come on brighter when they’re walking down the street, so that there’s a higher sense of security,” Condon said. “We often get technology for the sake of technology and it doesn’t change the citizen’s experience.”
 
The three sensors already installed are off-the-shelf commercial varieties that cost about $700 a piece and can measure particulate matter from 0.4 to 17 micrometers, said Von Walden, a professor with the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research at Washington State University’s civil engineering department.
 
“We are particularly interested in three situations,” said Walden, noting the university will closely study particulate matter generated by wildfires, wood-burning stoves in stagnant air and the air-quality of roadways. 
 
“For my own research, I am most interested in the particulate matter,” said Walden.
 
“Please note that this was a pilot project,” said Walden, referring to the three sensors installed in streetlights last year. “One of the things that we were interested in was how long the sensors would operate without needing maintenance. I’m happy to report that one out of the three particulate matter and CO2 sensors are still operating."
 
“Unfortunately, we do not have easy access to the packages on the streetlight poles to fix them, so this is why our next deployment will be on the rooftops of buildings so that we can provide maintenance and periodic calibration,” he added.
 
The district includes the East Central and the Logan neighborhoods, along with public and private university campuses. It’s the kind of site perfect for attracting tech companies and other related businesses, said the city’s mayor.
 
“If I was a technology company looking for an application for citizens and it involved, ‘how do we do a pilot?’ you have Urbanova in two different neighborhoods,” said Condon. “So, you could have a control group and then you could have the test site, and literally, within a mile of each other, do proof of concept.”
 
These kinds of smart city initiatives are the kinds of projects that can not only improve the quality of life for residents, but also improve Spokane’s own quality of place, making it an attractive home for emerging technology business development, the mayor explained.
 
“It’s the integration of safer, healthier and smarter communities that causes them (residents) to live where they’re living,” he added. “And it’s just exciting to see this in Urbanova.”
Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.