Clearing the air

This past June, Grace Li '17 stepped off a plane in Paris ready to spend her summer tracking down a silent killer. Now Li, her former teammates, and the flock of trained pigeons who also contributed to the project are about to get closer to their goal.

Li, then a recent mechanical engineering graduate, is one of seven MIT students who have interned with Plume Labs, a Paris-based startup that builds air quality sensing and forecasting technologies. Over the past three years, Plume Labs has recruited four summer interns from the MIT-France Program, which is part of the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), and three one-month interns from the MIT Alumni Association’s Student Externship program to help design, build, and test the Flow tracker, a wearable device that tracks indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Dubbed a "Fitbit for air quality" by TechCruch, the Flow tracker contains customized sensors that detect nearby air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, dust, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds common in household products. While individuals can use the information to create personalized routes and routines that reduce pollution exposure, Flow also crowdsources data when enough users are active, providing maps in real-time of pollution levels throughout a neighborhood or city.

“I’m interested in making products and designing user experiences that really have a significant positive impact on people’s lives. I think that’s very easy to justify with making air quality data more accessible, more available, more transparent,” says Li, who spent her internship building a calibration chamber and running tests on Flow’s air quality sensors, redesigning the leather strap that allows users to attach the product to a bag or bike, and leading package design on the preorder shipments. “This is one of those issues that I feel like sometimes doesn’t get enough attention, even though [air pollution] has become pretty prevalent in many areas and has a significant effect on our health.”

That effect is so great, the World Health Organization (WHO) calls air pollution “the world’s largest single environmental health risk” and links outdoor air pollution to approximately 3 million deaths per year. An estimated 92 percent of the global population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO safety limits, but tracking where these airborne toxins are isn’t always easy, says Romain Lacombe SM '08, founder of Plume Labs and an alumnus of MIT’s Technology and Policy Program. That’s because pollution concentration levels vary significantly depending on weather patterns, time of day, geography, sun exposure, interactions between airborne chemicals, and a host of other variables.

“This means that it's hard for anyone to know what they're really exposed to and so it makes it all the more difficult to take action to try to decrease your end exposure,” Lacombe adds.

Lacombe founded Plume Labs in 2014 with a mission to make air pollution data more accessible to both policymakers and the general public. The company released their Air Report app the following year. Air Report is a mobile app that collects pollution data from government sources around the world and uses it to construct models that predict hourly pollutant concentration levels and the best and worst times to be outside. Currently available for more than 200 cities worldwide, these large-scale predictions provide general guidance for how users could avoid air pollution Lacombe says, but didn’t provide granular information on toxins in a specific neighborhood or on a particular street.

Offering that intelligence in real-time would require lots of ground-level data, so the Plume Labs team decided that making a portable, light-weight pollution tracker would require a custom sensor. Since temperature and humidity impact measurement technologies, the sensor would have to not only detect a wide array of pollution levels, but needed to function across a broad spectrum of environmental conditions.

Plume Labs built several prototype sensors. Some of them took to the skies literally on the backs of birds in March 2016, when Plume partnered with Twitter UK and the DigitasLBi marketing agency to raise awareness about local air quality by strapping tiny, internet-ready, sensor-laden backpacks onto a half dozen trained pigeons. As the flock dispersed, curious Londoners could tweet their own location to @PigeonAir and receive data on pollution levels in their area. Media attention of the stunt garnered by the project paved the way for recruiting Flow beta testers.

By the time sophomore mechanical engineering student Annie Dai arrived for her MISTI internship in June 2016, Plume was getting its sensor ready for the commercial market. The research and development team had built prototype printed circuit boards, and Dai split her summer between research work in France and collaboration with a contract design studio in London to help develop the Flow tracker’s physical design. That meant building a series of pollution sensor prototypes, measuring their performance under a wide variety of conditions, and analyzing exactly how much air would need to go through the Flow tracker to get accurate pollution measurements.

MIT-France student intern Annie Dai (seated) says of her summer at Plume Labs: “This was probably the best summer I’ve had in my life and I think that was partially because it’s the most responsibility I’ve been given on a project.” Photo: Lillie Paquette/School of Engineering

“This was probably the best summer I’ve had in my life, and I think that was partially because it’s the most responsibility I’ve been given on a project,” says Dai, now a senior. “After that summer, I kind of fell in love with the whole startup feel. I like how much responsibility you’re given and how much your work impacts the final product.”

The final Flow tracker product debuted at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January and launched for pre-orders this week. Flow is expected to reach the retail market by June, 2018.

Grace Li and Annie Dai are unsure of exactly what they’ll be doing then, but both credit their MISTI internships as shaping their career plans. After getting a taste of the startup life while working in Plume Labs, Dai co-founded Octant, a startup that curates data for the autonomous vehicles industry. Li says that her internship solidified her desire to work in product development and increased her interest in working internationally. She is currently taking a gap year and investigation positions in Europe.

“I’m really excited to see the work that I did over the summer is actually being launched,” she says. “It’s really exciting.”

MISTI, MIT’s flagship international education program, is a part of the Center for International Studies, a program at the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (SHASS).