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
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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Why Chinese Cities Waste Millions On Vanity Building Projects

The so-called "White Elephants," or massive building projects that go unused, keep going up across China as local officials mix vanity and a misdirected attempt to attract business and tourists. A perfect example the 58-meter, $230 million statue of Guan Yu, a beloved military figure from the Third Century, that nobody seems interested in visiting.

Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China

Chen Zhe

BEIJING — The Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development recently ordered the relocation of a giant statue in Jingzhou, in the central province of Hubei. The 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue depicts Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the Eastern Han Dynasty in the Third century A.D.

The government said it ordered the removal because the towering presence "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city," and is "vain and wasteful." The relocation project wound up costing the taxpayers approximately ¥300 million ($46 million).

Huge monuments as "intellectual property" for a city

In recent years local authorities in China have often raced to create what is euphemistically dubbed IP (intellectual property), in the form of a signature building in their city. But by now, we have often seen negative consequences of such projects, which evolved from luxurious government offices to skyscrapers for businesses and residences. And now, it is the construction of cultural landmarks. Some of these "white elephant" projects, even if they reach the scale of the Guan Yu statue, or do not necessarily violate any regulations, are a real problem for society.

It doesn't take much to be able to differentiate between a project constructed to score political points and a project destined for the people's benefit. You can see right away when construction projects neglect the physical conditions of their location. The over the top government buildings, which for numerous years mushroomed in many corners of China, even in the poorest regional cities, are the most obvious examples.

Homebuyers looking at models of apartment buildings in Shanghai, China — Photo: Imaginechina/ZUMA

Guan Yu transformed into White Elephant

A project truly catering to people's benefit would address their most urgent needs and would be systematically conceived of and designed to play a practical role. Unfortunately, due to a dearth of true creativity, too many cities' expression of their rich cultural heritage is reduced to just building peculiar cultural landmarks. The statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou is a perfect example.

Long ago Jinzhou was a strategic hub linking the North and the South of China. But its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reform a generation ago.

This is why the city's policymakers came up with the idea of using the place's most popular and glorified personality, Guan Yu (who some refer to as Guan Gong). He is portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior. With the aim of luring tourists, the city leaders decided to use him to create the city's core attraction, their own IP.

Opened in June 2016, the park hosting the statue comprises a surface of 228 acres. In total it cost ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) to build; the statue alone was ¥173 million ($27 million). Alas, since the park opened its doors more than four years ago, the revenue to date is a mere ¥13 million ($2 million). This was definitely not a cost-effective investment and obviously functions neither as a city icon nor a cultural tourism brand as the city authorities had hoped.

China's blind pursuit of skyscrapers

Some may point out the many landmarks hyped on social media precisely because they are peculiar, big or even ugly. However, this kind of attention will not last and is definitely not a responsible or sustainable concept. There is surely no lack of local politicians who will contend for attention by coming up with huge, strange constructions. For those who can't find a representative figure, why not build a 40-meter tall potato in Dingxi, Gansu Province, a 50-meter peony in Luoyang, Shanxi Province, and maybe a 60-meter green onion in Zhangqiu, Shandong Province?

It is to stop this blind pursuit of skyscrapers and useless buildings that, early this month, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development issued a new regulation to avoid local authorities' deviation from people's real necessities, ridiculous wasted costs and over-consumption of energy.

I hope those responsible for the creation of a city's attractiveness will not simply go for visual impact, but instead create something that inspires people's intelligence, sustains admiration and keeps them coming back for more.

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