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Italian Researchers Use Drones To Pinpoint Air Polluters

Researchers are sending remote-controlled aircraft into residential neighborhoods to figure out just who's burning what in their stoves or fireplaces.

Smoke-finding drone by E-Lite systems engineering
Smoke-finding drone by E-Lite systems engineering
Domenico Zaccaria

TURIN — Drones that buzz around our homes and "sniff" chimneys? That's precisely what Air Pollution Control — a research project making smart use of remotely piloted aircraft and advanced-sensor technology — has in mind as a way to monitor and hopefully reduce dangerous household emissions.

In Italy, on average, only 25% of air pollution comes from moving vehicles. Another 25% is the result of industrial settlements. But the biggest share— the remaining 50% — is directly attributable to domestic heating.

Air Pollution Control is a project developed by Ancitel Energia e Ambiente, a company that operates in innovation and sustainable development. The company collaborated with partners in the technological innovation fields of automation, drones and sensors, such as start-up E-Lite Systems Engineering, and with pollution-focused research centers like the state-run Institute of Atmospheric Pollution Research (CNR-IIA).

"As far as vehicles are concerned, with the gradual switch to electric and methane systems, we seem to be on the right track. And regarding industrial plants, emissions are subject to continuous monitoring and verification," says Filippo Bernocchi, president of Ancitel Energia e Ambiente. "But the situation is out of control when it comes to private housing. The control units currently installed in urban centers provide specific data connected to the observation site, which does not consider the cumulative effects. This means the data we have does not refer specifically to the quality of the air we breathe."

The drone's "nose" can sense what escapes the control units.

A recent study by Innovhub, a company that carries out applied research and provides scientific advice, found that as many as 1,200 Italian municipalities are not yet using natural gas (primarily LPG, the least polluting fossil fuel) for domestic heating. Gas, unlike fireplaces and pellet stoves, does not produce fine particles, which are the most troublesome pollutant. The European Environment Agency says that Italy's fine particulate matter (Pm 2.5) kills 66,000 people every year.

It is therefore essential to be able to monitor the pollutants produced by our homes: This was the starting point for the researchers who created Air Pollution Control. In the town of Feltre, in the north-eastern province of Belluno, an experimental phase offering reassuring results: The drone's "nose" can sense what escapes the control units. With a 15-minute flight, it can map out 10 hectares of territory. The project will be officially launched by the end of 2019.

"Air Pollution Control was created to help municipalities control risks and improve air quality, especially considering the use of biomass in urban areas," says Ugo Rossi of E-Lite. "Thanks to networks of sensors on the ground and in the air, we not only can obtain data relative to pollution in a short time, but also identify where the pollution comes from. This allows municipalities to act in a targeted, effective and efficient manner."

This means that we will soon have the first listings of residential polluters, which will allow administrators, data in hand, to intervene at the sources and take measures to facilitate the transition to less polluting forms of domestic heating.

By cross-referencing the data with land registry information, it will then be possible to sanction those who insist on lighting stoves and fireplaces even against municipal rules or those who burn forbidden substances. Now is a good time, in other words, for everyone to start cleaning up their act.

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This focus on biological sex differences turned out to be woefully inadequate, as a group of Harvard-affiliated researchers pointed out earlier this year. By analyzing more than a year of sex-disaggregated COVID-19 data, they showed that the gender gap was more fully explained by social factors like mask-wearing and distancing behaviors (less common among men) and testing rates (higher among pregnant women and health workers, who were largely female).

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