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Meet Squirrel, a Personal Pollution Monitor

Doug Ramsey | April 23, 2007

Since 1990, San Diego’s population has risen by 1.8 million people, yet the number of its official pollution monitors has only increased by one. Now UC San Diego engineer-turned-artist Shannon Spanhake has come up with a new and better way to monitor the environment: a personal pollution sensor called Squirrel.

Mobile Polution Detector
Squirrel (left) samples air pollutants and sends data to a cell phone, which in turn tranmits data to a centralized database.

There are only a handful of pollution sensors used by the Environmental Protection Agency to gauge pollution levels in San Diego County and a few more on the other side of the border in Mexico, Spanhake said. The price of wireless and sensor technology has dropped enough that everyone of us could become a pollution monitor, taking readings 24/7, she added. The results could then be fed wirelessly to a database that would give us a lot more concrete data to make informed decisions about how to fight pollution at the level of the individual, the region, and the country, she also said.

Squirrel fits in the palm of your hand and can be clasped to a belt or purse. The small, battery-powered mobile device can sample pollutants with its on-chip sensor. The current prototype measures carbon monoxide and ozone, but eventually the device will be able to sample nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide in the air, as well as temperature, barometric pressure and humidity.

It’s what happens next that makes Squirrel a powerful tool in the fight against pollution. Using a Bluetooth wireless transmitter, the device connects to the user’s cell phone. A software program called Acorn allows the user to see the current pollution alerts through a screensaver on the cell phone’s display. The phone also periodically transmits the environmental data to a public database on the Internet operated by the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2), which is funding Squirrel’s development.

Mobile Polution Detector
Shannon Spanhake

“The Squirrel extends the functionality of a mobile phone to interrogate the environment by sampling the criteria pollutants,” says Spanhake, who did her undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and received an MFA in visual arts from UCSD.

Spanhake is currently a researcher in Calit2 at UCSD, where she is working with Don Kimball and his team in the Circuits Laboratory who are building and refining the prototype device and software.

The personal pollution device also has the advantage that it measures pollution where people are, whereas most existing sensors are located on top of buildings, not at ground level.

Spanhake showed an early version of the device at the sixth annual Gadgetfest last December, and since then she has demonstrated it at a number of meetings, including this year’s Emerging Technology Conference (ETech) in La Jolla, where it was a big hit. “A reporter from the BBC did an audio interview, CNET News dropped by, and a reporter from Reuters asked lots of questions,” recalls Spanhake. “It was a great night, but I didn’t get to see many of the other demos as my table was quite active throughout the night.”

As conceived by Spanhake, Squirrel is a bold exercise in social responsibility and cross-border engagement. There are plans for a pilot Squirrel network in Tijuana, near the San Ysidro border with San Diego.

“We want to make air-quality data visible, accessible and legible to raise consciousness of environmental monitoring,” says Spanhake. “Low-cost technology will also make it available and scalable to the technological, environmental and cultural needs of individuals, communities and cities.”

At the ETech conference, Squirrel did give the air in the La Jolla Grand Hyatt a (relatively) clean bill of health. Carbon monoxide was detected at 11 parts per million, well below the threshold of what the EPA considers real air pollution.

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