Mapping Out Traffic Pollution

Traffic tie-ups aren’t just a headache for drivers, they can also be a significant source of pollution. But new, low-cost, wireless sensors could offer real-time information on traffic hotspots, potentially helping to clear up the congestion, and clear the air. UK researchers are showing off a network of pollution sensors today at a government-backed technology conference in London.


Called the MESSAGE project — for Mobile Environmental Sensing System Across Grid Environments — the research is led by the Imperial College London. The government’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which organized the conference and is partially backing the sensor research, said the network is the first of its kind in the world.

Set up in Gateshead, in northeast England, the pilot sensor network collects data on carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide and other pollutants, as well as temperature, humidity and noise levels, and keeps a count of passing vehicles. The info is all sent back to a central computer, which can power an updated, online pollution map of the area.

The researchers are aiming to demonstrate the potential of a small, low-cost system that can be used for planning, management, and control of the environmental impacts of transport. It looks like it’s still in the research stage, so it’s unclear what the plans are, if any, for commercialization of the project.

The Gateshead network has around 50 wireless sensors attached to railings and streetlights along major roads in the area. A team from Newcastle University designed the Gateshead system using ZigBee-based sensors. The group, which also includes the University of Cambridge, plans to set up more sensors in Cambridge, Leicester, and London, with all of the networks beaming their data back to a common central server. The Cambridge researchers are looking at using cell phones to support a sensor network, while the Imperial College plans to build a system using Wi-Fi and WiMAX for communications and positioning.

The systems could be a boon to cities trying to keep a lid on traffic buildups, and allow drivers, or even pedestrians who are keeping an eye on the real-time data on their iPhone, to change their route to avoid the extra pollution. “Other cities in the UK and around the world, such as New York and New Delhi, are interested in replicating what we’re doing here,” said Professor Phil Blythe of Newcastle University in a statement.