How often do you think about the air you breathe? If it is not causing you problems, then it probably doesn’t cross your mind. But if you have asthma or allergies, then keeping an eye on air quality could be useful for managing your symptoms.
Irish start-up NuWave Sensors has developed sensor- and machine-learning technology to monitor air quality and “learn” the environmental conditions that are associated with asthma attacks or flare-ups of allergies.
"It is a smart air-quality sensor for asthma and allergies," explains Lisa Ainsworth cofounder and director of NuWave Sensors, which is marking World Asthma Day today by launching a new consumer product called Cair. "It is specifically targeted at consumers who have either asthma or allergies and are concerned about indoor air quality."
The device houses a suite of sensors and sits in one spot in your house or office. Every 60 seconds it takes measurements of temperature, humidity, large and fine particles and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air, explains Ainsworth: “It is constantly sampling the air in the room, and it sends that information up to the cloud [servers] via the wifi in your home.”
NuWave’s software analyses those details in the context of other environmental factors (such as weather forecasts and pollen counts) and sends results back to an app on the user’s smartphone or tablet.
“This will tell you how your indoor air quality is at a glance,” says Ainsworth. “You can instantly see whether the temperature and humidity and VOCs and particles are performing within recommended standards, and we will send you an alert if the measures are moving out of the recommended zones.”
NuWave is looking to help people with respiratory problems keep tabs on their environment as it relates to symptoms – if the user logs details about their asthma attack or allergic reactions on the system, the software can “learn” the environmental conditions associated with those events, explains Ainsworth.
“You might have itchy eyes or you start sneezing, these tend to be predictors of upcoming attacks, and you can log the time and the event,” she says.
“Then the software looks at what the environmental conditions were at that time you had those itchy eyes or sneezes, and the next time that the sensors detect the same conditions you will get an early warning and a suggestion of what to do – maybe open a window, put on a humidifier or follow a link to the Asthma Society of Ireland’s website for recommendations.”
The start-up, which is based at Dublin City University’s Alpha campus in Glasnevin, has already released its air-monitoring technology to consumers in the United States and in commercial and clinical environments, where it can be important to pick up on other factors such as airborne microbes.
Ainsworth hopes that users in Ireland will now contribute to a more “crowdsourced” picture of what is going on in their general area.
“You can choose to be part of a community and give information through the app about symptoms or events,” she explains. “Then if a number of people in your area are having a reaction to, say, a soaring pollen count, you get that early warning.”
But what about security? Users who opt to share details with the community are anonymised and the sensor system itself has "full end-to-end encryption", according to NuWave cofounder Dr Stephen Daniels, a senior lecturer in electronic engineering at DCU.
Even if someone did hack in to a user’s profile, there isn’t much they could do, he adds. “Our sensors are just sampling,” says Daniels. “The system can suggest an action to the user but it doesn’t take out that action, so it can’t put on your ventilation system or automatically open your windows.”
Indoor air quality is a concern that
hears about as advocacy manager with the
Asthma Society of Ireland
, which has formed a partnership with NuWave.
“I regularly get calls from our members asking about indoor air quality and are there ways to monitor it,” says Kelly. “The answer to that up until now was yes, but it is very expensive. This technology puts it more in reach of consumers.”
Of the 470,000 or so people in Ireland who have been diagnosed with asthma, about 60 per cent do not have the condition under control, according to Kelly, who believes that tracking indoor air quality could help people to identify patterns and triggers.
The Asthma Society of Ireland will sell the NuWave device through its website and will also work with them to carry out a “baseline” study over time of indoor air quality monitoring in a small number of homes this summer.
“It could be particularly useful for people who notice that their symptoms are worse in particular indoor environments,” he says. “And people who log their events will get the most out of the system.”
Cair retails online at €159. To mark World Asthma Day the Asthma Society of Ireland is running Bubble Day events around Ireland. See asthma.ie