Update on our first prototype & air pollution on BBC news again

BBC London ran a recent story on air pollution exposure during commuting:

It now seems a long while since our last blog post, but air pollution is barely out of the news with the latest BBC story about air pollution exposure during commuting. This topic is fairly close to our hearts with the pollution guardian activity inspired by the fact that air pollution exposure is highest within motor vehicles.

Earlier on this year, we put together our first prototype pollution sensor containing a particulate sensor for PM2.5 measurement and a Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2 ) gas sensor. PM2.5 refers to the measurement of very small particles, less than 0.0025mm in diameter which can go deep into the lungs and containing a variety of payloads e.g. road, brake or tyre dust or chemical compounds from combustion. Nitrogen Dioxide gas can exacerbate respiratory conditions and at street level is mainly produced by diesel vehicles.

How does out first prototype look?

Close up photo of our first protoype unit

Why did we make this first prototype?

  • to create a self-contained sensor unit with its own internal power supply to enable easier bench and field (car) testing
  • to shrink the volume of air trapped within the unit in order to keep the unit responsive to the current air conditions
  • to enable experimentation with parameters to find the best balance of sensitivity versus stability

We will write a bit more about the “infrastructure” of the prototype and surrounding app and cloud solution in later blogs, but the main question we had when we put the hardware unit together was does it work?

Well, the good news was that the prototype actually worked as expected across a range of functional areas with only one bug with battery charging which was solved by a simple hardware modification to the units.

How well did the units work compared to our initial cardboard prototypes? Pretty good in practice:

  • having “always on” internal power meant that the sensors could be ready to start work within a couple of seconds; previously the sensors could require several hours from being powered up to being ready to measure
  • fast responsiveness to Nitrogen Dioxide gas e.g. able to pick out smelly vehicles passing by

NO2 measurement against time

And where does that spike of air pollution correspond to? A smelly van on the southbound slip road of the M25/A3 junction…

Map of NO2 air pollution hotspot on M25/A3 southbound sliproad

 

Smart Phone Applications for the Pollution Guardian Project

Most Internet of Things (IOT) products are associated with using very efficient protocols such as MQTT over a special purpose radio link like LoRa. However the IOT solution we are building in the Pollution Guardian project is quite different for the following reasons:

  • As a consumer device we need interaction locally in real time.
  • Our aim was to produce hardware which could be purchased for the minimum cost to the consumer and so offer benefits to as many people as possible. This meant a minimized UI on the device itself.

These drivers brought us to the following decisions: we would build a device which reaches the internet via a smart phone bridge. We would therefore use Bluetooth Low Energy to communicate between the device and the phone.

 

 

We have chosen to build our prototypes using Android as this offers a lower cost to start up than using IOS in terms of devices and computing facilities, we have been careful however throughout the project not to lock ourselves into Android-only infrastructure solutions.

As a roadmap we realized that we needed two versions of the application: first an ‘engineering’ application optimized for our testing in laboratory and in technical field test and second a ‘consumer’ application which would deliver the experience design for a real customer.

The engineering application was the first target since it was the means to learn about our sensor package and how it reacted to changes in pollution conditions. Even for this application we have stuck to the principle of cloud data storage as the most effective means to leverage the value of the data collected – so no memory cards or local only databases were to be implemented. Because our background was in device-side development rather than infrastructure, Firebase Real Time Database emerged immediately as a very good candidate for data storage.

 

 

Further benefits of using Firebase emerged for authentication with code snippets available for sign-on and sign-up. Firebase also handles ‘beneath the hood’ all the buffering, reconnecting and error handling needed for practical operation with a mobile device where connection to the internet may or may not be available at any moment in time.

For the engineering phase, extraction of measurement results files for further offline analysis is essential and Firebase’s admin API library enabled this in a python environment. The data could then be further analyzed with data science tools in Jupyter notebooks.

So far we have extracted data from hundreds of miles of road-test and hours of static testing – the tool set works well and extremely reliably for us. Future posts will share more about the Engineering App and how we further developed our application and cloud designs.

Pollution Guardian: Measuring air pollution with cereal packet prototypes

As mentioned in the previous blog, we put in a lot of preparation work over summer 2018 in order to be able to quickly start work on the Pollution Guardian project and de-risk certain areas. One of the first items to be actioned was the creation of a custom circuit board to explore the performance of our selected, affordable Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) gas sensors and the type of electronics needed to setup, amplify and filter the output of these sensors. We called it our “bench test” circuit board as we thought it would only get used indoors on the bench..

Bench test circuit board

With the bench test board, we designed a couple of options for the electronics solution:

  • to provide a backup option, in case the one circuit failed to perform
  • provide us alternate options based on relative performance
  • to enable optimisation of the bill of materials cost

Designing & making the circuits went relatively smoothly,  but it is not until you receive circuits that you can really see what is going on. Some mistakes we discovered quickly, whilst others took a period to debug. Mostly our mistakes were due to the misinterpretation of and assumptions on the component specifications; our first solutions to these issues actually went on to compound our problems.

After a period of investigation and debugging, we were finally able to identify and solve the underlying issue. As part of this work, we lashed these prototype circuits together with an off-shelf development board (TI cc2640R2) all contained in a cereal packet wrap for protection. We called our first units  Dougal & Zebedee and took them out of the lab and into the car:

Dougal and zebedee prototypes

What we found when we started testing out the units was that whilst our units appeared quite sensitive to temperature change, they were actually capable of detecting low levels of NO2 inside the car.

The picture below shows a trace of NO2 measurements whilst traversing the one way gyratory system in the centre of Guildford – note that a decreasing level on the graph trace implies a higher NO2 concentration:

Air pollution on Guildford gyratory system

 

So, at the conclusion of our cardboard proto work, we knew we had the right potential sensitivity toward NO2 which we could work with on the next prototype to calibrate and try to get consistent between test units.

 

 

 

Pollution Guardian: From competition win to prototyping

BBC cartoon programme Magic Roundabout characters

Magic Roundabout characters

Feasibility projects like the Pollution Guardian imply a certain level of risk and it was critical for our business to secure some grant support from Innovate UK to help us mitigate those risks.

Looking back, it seems a long time since we made our application for funding, but considering the risks ahead, we prepared ourselves in order to get started quickly in case of a positive outcome of our bid:

  • Working on the system architecture, driving decisions on the hardware and software platforms to use within development
  • Further research on the key components
  • Talking to collaborators and contractors to re-check availability
  • Re-planning the market research

Now, many academic papers point to the difficulty in using affordable sensors e.g. around variability, stability and accuracy, so one of our biggest challenges in the project is to put together an affordable solution based on these sensors. Our approach was to tackle this issue head on, building a very early prototype and using a minimum “data gathering platform” around it to understand the pitfalls & performance issues.

This early work cut across several disciplines:

  1. Electronics, designing a custom circuit to best interface with affordable gas sensors
  2. Firmware, building on a development platform to gather and share sensor data over wireless
  3. Mobile app, customised to gather the local sensor data & upload it to a data store
  4. Mobile backend, a real time database to capture the data streams and tools to help explore the data
  5. Mechanics, how to wrap this early prototype for real world use
  6. Early system testing & validation approach

We will be adding a few blogs to the site to cover progress on the above items; suffice to say the first mechanical housing for the unit followed the “breakfast cereal box” approach. After wrapping up the first sensor unit, its looks gave us the name for our prototype, Dougal, after the dog character from the programme, “The Magic Roundabout”.

Dougal, the Pollution Guardian cereal box prototype

Is it worth entering Innovate UK competitions?

We, at All about the Product, consider ourselves blessed to have won a grant from Innovate UK in the Open March 2018 competition along with our collaborators at the University of Surrey. Thus we are have now embarked on our “Pollution Guardian” Startup project. To help others considering such a bid we thought it might be useful to write this blog.

Why should you do it?

  • Investment: Quite simply the grants from Innovate can be the difference between properly exploring a business idea and letting it wither on the vine. We have found that the grant we received has made it possible not only to buy materials and hire specialist contractors but also to spend the time to unlock the potential of our own competences and experience.
  • Collaboration with academia: This benefit was not immediately obvious to us when we started our journey but has become a key component our activities as we execute our project. The good thing is that universities can attract 100% funding as a collaborator and with that you can get not only world class know-how in a certain field but also a different world view which will enrich your project no end.
  • Support from Innovate: You have a Monitoring Officer appointed who will review your project every quarter. While some may regard this as an examination to pass in order to get your funding released, we have found this discipline useful to keep structure in the project and facilitate periods of reflection on progress. Of course having the backing of ‘Supported by Innovate UK’ also opens doors and helps convey immediately that this project already has gone through a lot of scrutiny.

How do you win?

The simple answer is that we do not know. We had more than one attempt for different applications and through those attempts we did change our proposition significantly. So you could argue immediately that the application process in itself forces you to improve your idea and so is a worthwhile exercise in its own right.

Choosing the right competition to enter is often cited as very important with the idea that you should enter the most specific competition to your idea as possible. Since we won the Open Competition after failing in the Emerging and Enabling competition we cannot perhaps be considered a typical case.

Learning from previous bids and listening to feedback is important – you do get scored feedback on any bid you make. However winning is not simply getting the highest score since Innovate do consider the portfolio of investments they are making. You are only allowed to make the same application twice so do learn from previous feedback but do not give up too easily.

 

 What happens if you do win?

You get the email and read “We are pleased to inform you that your application has been successful” – so what now? In our case this was 3 months after we submitted our application and 5 months after the competition opened. You are not able to start the project immediately and there are quite a few more hoops you need to jump through before you get your all-important offer letter – in our case this took another two and a half months.

So you find yourself starting a project which you planned at least 6 months ago and in this time you may find contractors you had identified are no longer available so you will probably need to do some re-planning – things change after all.

Is it all worth it?

Our experience is that it is for the reasons outlined above. It is not necessarily a fast process for a start-up eager to get moving but if you hang in there it can be very rewarding.

https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/innovate-uk

https://allabouttheproduct.com/

 

Origins of the Pollution Guardian Startup

We have now completed the first quarter of the Pollution Guardian project part funded by Innovate UK and it seemed a good time to reflect on where this whole thing came from in the first place.

It all started from a growing awareness, through many stories in the press, about the negative health effects of air pollution. Furthermore this pollution, unlike the ‘pea-souper’ of the 1950s and 1960s was largely invisible. However its immediate term effects were not invisible to the large numbers of people suffering from various respiratory illnesses such as asthma. It seemed there should be a demand to ‘shine a light’ on this pollution.

When starting a business idea it is important not only to understand customer needs but also the business’s capability to do something about it. At All about the Product we are veterans from the mobile phone industry and are steeped in both technical and commercial experience to bring highly sophisticated consumer electronic communications products to market. Any solution we were going to build would therefore be an ‘Internet of Things’ solution.

As many people have told us, for a good product idea it is not only important to know whether there are high levels of pollution present but also there needs to be something to do about it. We therefore became interested in the effects of pollution inside vehicles where there was an opportunity to control this enclosed space more than the entire atmosphere of a city. On further investigation we found articles which showed that very often the level of pollutants inside a car exceed those at the road-side [1] – we had our application focus.

We wanted a product within economic reach of the majority of the population and therefore a low cost consumer internet of things product for use in cars and other vehicles was born.

As this idea developed, we spoke to many stakeholder organisations such as health charities, workers unions, academia and local government. What we learnt from these discussions underlined the fact that there was this invisible problem there and many felt powerless to combat it. Our motivation to do something only grew.

We put our engineering hats and did a quick study to show that producing such a product was feasible. However when we looked at the skills needed to pull this product off, we quickly realised we lacked knowledge about urban pollution and the experience of pollution measurement. Fortuitously our local University – the University of Surrey has a very strong department in this field, so we contacted Professor Kumar at the Global Centre for Clean Air Research (GCARE) and set up a meeting. It quickly emerged that our skills complemented those of the university in making this product investigation happen. We agreed to join forces in making a bid for one of Innovate UK’s competitions and after a couple of attempts we won one! Thus the Pollution Guardian Project was born.

[1] Cepeda et al :Lancet Public Health 2017; 2:e23-34

https://allabouttheproduct.com/

https://www.surrey.ac.uk/global-centre-clean-air-research

Sensing the Air Quality

Venue for sensing the air quality and emissions program

In our home page, we mentioned that within product incubation, we were working on our own solution activities. The area of interest is within the internet of things (IoT) and is  targeted at low cost air pollution/air quality (AQ) solutions at this time. Thus we were pleased to participate in the 46th Intelligent sensing program, organised by the UK knowledge transfer network.

What were the main learnings from the event?

  • Big concerns on the level of small particulates, specifically PM2.5 and below.
  • EU AQ measurement standardisation is scoping “informative” sensing solutions.
  • Growing interest in AQ sensor networks.
  • UK government desire to leverage crowdsourced pollution data.
  • Key sensor criteria & findings from low cost sensing components.
  • Urban & journey pollution mapping.

Particulates

Can we meet the EU reduction targets for PM2.5 particulates by 2020? Should we be counting the number of particles rather than particle mass/m^3? Just one PM10 particle weighs as much as 1000 PM1 particles.

AQ sensor networks

Presentations from Alphasense and AirMonitors Ltd. pointed to the additional value coming from “lower than reference” quality sensors connected up as a network e.g. the ability to dis-aggregate pollution sources.

Crowdsourcing, sensor criteria and findings

The UK Environment Agency are looking to identify how they can better leverage crowdsource AQ data as a larger monitoring network than their existing 150 reference stations across the UK. However, the main concern is over the quality of this data. This then leads us to think about the air quality sensor and sensor system criteria:

  • Sensitivity: enough for the purpose e.g. movements within the general background outdoor AQ level
  • Specificity: responding to a specific gas pollutant and not being easily spoofed by the presence of other gases
  • Stability: the sensor performance remains predictable enough, compared to a reference over its intended lifespan

A couple of presentations mentioned using  low cost sensors based upon existing metal oxide technology – the learning here being that the sensor system stability is a challenging issue to manage. Mitigation seems so far to have been to adopt electrochemical type sensors but which can be significantly higher cost.

Hamamatsu was one supplier at the event claiming good individual gas detection capability using light absorption sensing e.g. a sensor set to the band gap of a specific gas. This looks an interesting avenue to explore further.

Overall, the sensor selection is one of the most significant factors for us to consider in our low cost AQ sensing solution.

Urban & air pollution monitoring from vehicles

A couple of interesting talks measuring pollution across journeys.

  • Motorway driving is quite bad for particulates exposure due to vehicle pollution “plumes”.
  • Air re-recirculation in cars provides quite some benefit to exposure levels, as long as the CO2 levels & humidity levels in the cabin don’t build up too much.
  • Urban NO2 hotspots experienced by cyclists on pathways, not only near road junctions but also when passing by industrial areas.
  • AQ pollution hotspots can move position dependent on the wind direction e.g. crossing over to the opposite side of the road. So, dynamic measurements or models are important.

 

 

Internet of Things (IoT) niches drive radio specialisation

In a previous blog article looking at radio technologies, we suggested that the winners in the race were likely to be based around Bluetooth, Zigbee and the emergent 5G technologies. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that life is more complicated than this, and there is a lot more going on within selected niches as well as elsewhere outside of the UK.

Whilst collaborating with a smart home energy saving business, OpenTRV, one of the things that becomes obvious is that it is super important in the home environment for devices requiring remote control to be able to communicate with a central/controller hub. There are number of ways of tackling this:

  • Plug all the devices in, use Wi-Fi and hope that all devices can reach the home Wi-Fi hub
  • Plug all the devices in, use Wi-Fi with range extender units e.g. using powerline technology
  • Go battery powered and use a low power “mesh network” of devices based on Bluetooth or Zigbee technology and hope that this will help solve all nodes reaching the hub
  • Go battery powered and use a low power wireless technology that has a better range in the first place e.g. sub-GHz radio based at 433MHz or 868MHz

There are different likelihoods of success and a number of pros and cons with each of these approaches: installation/wiring of sensors to an electricity supply, cost of extra connectivity units, battery replacement costs, data throughput, design margin/certainty of connections etc. In the home environment, product businesses have often tended to pick the last approach for the out of box certainty of connection and are big users of the sub-GHz radio technologies e.g. Lightwave & Mi|Home products.

Now “sub-GHz” wireless technologies may not be that familiar to people who know Bluetooth and Wi-Fi from their mobile phones, but they turn out to be surprisingly well supported by silicon vendors with a wide set of chipset offerings e.g. Texas Instruments CC1310, ST Microelectronics S2-LP, Nordic nRF-905, Silicon Labs EZR32WG, NXP MKW01Z128, Renesas RL78/G1H etc.

 

Silicon Labs sub-GHz evaluation board

Silicon Labs sub-GHz evaluation board

Whilst the sub-GHz radio solutions for home sensors enjoy longer range e.g. 100m with low power, they do have the disadvantage of being unable to natively communicate with mobile phones or the internet. To do this, they need a compatible receiver box which has to be connected to the home router or Wi-Fi hub. This in itself is not a major issue as all home solutions currently rely on a physical “box” for providing the control element of the solution.

But could this box disappear into the cloud in the future? Certainly, but consumers may become worried if increasing numbers of their critical home systems lack the backup of local controls and they become totally dependent on both their broadband provider AND their home automation service’s cloud operation.

Evolutionary crisis in smartphones?

Nokia Phone to Smartphone Evolution

For ten years now the mobile phone business has been dominated by similar looking device offerings with large touch screens and similar user experiences centred on a responsive touch interface; is this going to continue, how is the market going to evolve?

Competition as a supplier in the mobile phone business is not straightforward -the rules of the game change from time to time. The mobile phone industry has seen a number of such change cycles since the establishment of the first digital mobile phones around 1990, with different players exiting and entering the market according to their ability to compete profitably within the cycle. During each cycle, different business factors become critical within the different phases:

The impact on a supplier’s product portfolio through the change cycle is a gradual increase in the in the lifecycle of individual products, which leads in turn to a widening of the number of products offered and ultimately to a much more consumer segmented product offer.

The voice era

The first change period in the digital era was purely the ability to produce a digital mobile phone at all – leading to the development of proprietary chipsets and software. The first digital products were too large and battery life was terrible, so the following consolidation phase was one of miniaturisation and power optimisation over a period in excess of five years. As the technology reached a point where acceptable size and power consumption was available there followed a plateau period for roughly 3 years when branding, segmentation and physical cosmetics was to the fore.

The multimedia era

The next change period came in 2002 with the advent of camera phones and programmable operating systems in GSM world markets. This heralded a period of multimedia convergence in the mobile devices as music players, video players appeared alongside the ever-present camera. A further complexity was incorporated over the following 2 years as 3G WCDMA became established as a fundamental requirement of a multimedia device. It can be argued that this change cycle was still in its consolidation period when it was disrupted by the next change period in 2007 when the Apple iPhone brought fundamental innovation in the user interface and later in the software application model. For a short period of less than two years products from both cycles were active and successful in the market – it should be noted that always after a change event there is a similar period, but the Apple iPhone product paradigm became the clear winner.

The Smartphone era

Since 2008 there has been a consolidation period in what became the smartphone space with ever better cameras, better quality displays and improved computing performance to deliver a high quality experience. Today the consolidation is reaching a point where the experience difference between high end smartphones and low cost smartphones has never been smaller. The smartphone based on the iPhone of 2007 has made it through its period of consolidation without being fundamentally disrupted.

So today, the smartphone business is in a plateau period- with supplier profitability tied closely to branding and logistical excellence fighting against the gravitational pull of commoditisation.

By retaining its own proprietary platform Apple has maintained differentiation while the rest of the market shares the Android platform and has therefore experienced greater pressures. Since the chipset business in the Android space has also been horizontalised- there is pressure from Qualcomm, Samsung and the like to adopt the very latest generations of their chipsets, however these are not delivering the big improvements in user experience seen in earlier years. Product differentiation is increasingly hard and the mode of the business is moving much more to a fast moving consumer goods model – as it did in the 1998-2002 period. The greater challenge now is that the smartphone form factor does not lend itself to easy cosmetic differentiation since the front face is over 90% glass.

So unless some breakthrough innovation is made, the winners in the smartphone market will be those who possess a good brand and marketing with the operational excellence necessary to deliver really good value to the end user.

Nokia – a good time to make a come back?

Nokia 6

After largely disappearing from the mobile phone market following its acquisition by Microsoft, 2017 will see the re-emergence of the Nokia brand with products managed by HMD Global in partnership with FIH Mobile (part of Hon Hai Precision) and brand licensed from Nokia. As someone deeply involved with portfolio management at Nokia during the growth and glory days, I would like to take the opportunity to explore whether this is a good time for them to make a comeback?
In a previous blog I analysed the dynamics of the mobile phone market in terms of what facets of the overall business need to be optimised at a given point in time. In brief, my view is that the smart phone market has moved into a plateauing phase where the key strengths needed are brand, distribution and cost efficiency. So the question is whether this new Nokia set-up is well placed for this challenge?
First of all where is the Nokia brand today? Ten years ago Nokia was the leading mobile phone brand across the world except in North America, South Korea and Japan. This position had been built on fifteen years of growth – how much can this legacy be drawn on now? At its zenith Nokia stood for a perhaps contradictory combination of high technology and reliability – you could expect to get the very latest from Nokia and the products would be really tough in real life. The challenges of the 2008-2013 period largely stripped Nokia of the high technology association but today you still hear stories of how good and tough my Nokia was. The UK press has been full of stories about the resurrection for the 3310 over the last week, all very positive. So if I was to describe the Nokia brand today from a European perspective I would use words like: honest, tough and sentimental.
Distribution is the next major part of competing in today’s market scenario as with any fast moving goods business. Here HMD take responsibility for sales and FIH Mobile for manufacturing and logistics. This has the promise of being a good combination with a lot of personnel coming over from Microsoft devices business while FIH are of course a well-established world class manufacturer. Access to market in countries where operator distribution is critical will depend on the right deals being made but there is no obvious reason why this may not be the case. While a split company setup may struggle in a period where the market is changing fast with product innovation at the fore, since this is not the case at the moment there is no reason to believe this cannot succeed well.
Cost efficiency is the key to offering the value for money proposition essential in a plateauing market and in this case to compete against mainly Chinese companies which offer very keen price points. Clearly the advantage of the resonance of the Nokia brand will give the new venture an edge but as a challenger there can be no expectation of premium pricing at the beginning of sales. With the mobile phone chipset business dominated by only a few suppliers, the size of FIH/Hon Hai as a manufacturer will be important to get good pricing as well as the potential of Nokia branded goods making even a fraction of historical volumes.
So in a nutshell it would appear that the timing for a comeback looks good. Leaving re-entry any later would see the continuing in the decline of Nokia as a consumer brand – furthermore the operational mode of separate sales and manufacturing companies in partnership can work when product innovation is not the main route to success.