Flatburn, The Mobile Air Pollution Scanner

Researchers at MIT have created an open-source version of a low-cost, mobile pollution detector that could enable people to easily track air quality. The detector – called Flatburn – is part of a larger project, known as City Scanner, using mobile devices to better understand urban life.

“The goal is for community groups or individual citizens anywhere to be able to measure local air pollution, identify its sources, and, ideally, create feedback loops with officials and stakeholders to create cleaner conditions,” said Carlo Ratti, director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab. 

Flatburn can be made by 3D printing or by ordering inexpensive parts. The detector has been tested and calibrated in relation to existing state-of-the-art machines, and complete details about its construction, use, and data interpretation have been publicly released. 

“We’ve been doing several pilots around the world, and we have refined a set of prototypes, with hardware, software, and protocols, to make sure the data we collect are robust from an environmental science point of view,” said Simone Mora, a researcher at Senseable City Lab and co-author of the paper.

Recent testing of the device was conducted in New York City and the Boston area.  The Flatburn device was compared to the use of a state-of-the-art system deployed by Tufts University, along with a state agency. All the detectors were set up to measure concentrations of fine particulate matter – as well as nitrogen dioxide – over an area of approximately 10 meters. The research team found that the mobile detectors estimated somewhat lower concentrations of fine particulate matter than the devices already in use, but with a strong enough correlation to produce reliable results.

“Hopefully with the release of the open-source Flatburn we can get grassroots groups, as well as communities in less developed countries, to follow our approach and build and share knowledge,” says An Wang, paper co-author.