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13 October, 2006 - 15:12 By Staff Reporter

Sensors driving a pollution revolution

Cambridge is centre stage in a major new £4.1m research project aimed at reducing traffic pollution through the use of mobile sensors.

The ambitious endeavour aims to harness a number of varied technologies to get a more detailed picture of the environmental damage caused by transportation and in the process, develop a platform capable of crunching vast amounts of data.

The MESSAGE project, jointly funded by the Department for Transport and ESPRC is at the cutting-edge of e-science and will bring together a consortium of leading international specialists in the fields of e-Science, transport, sensors, communications and positioning technologies across five universities, major industrial partners and transport authorities.

Air pollution ‘hastens the deaths’ of between 12,000 and 24,000 vulnerable people a year in the UK, according to a report by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants.

Cambridge’s University and City Council are playing pivotal roles in MESSAGE, as well as one of the city’s brightest start-ups, Owlstone Nanotech.

Owlstone uses leading-edge micro and nano-fabrication techniques to create a chemical detection system one hundred times smaller and a thousand times cheaper than existing technology.

The technology is able to detect various chemical agents including contaminants, chemical warfare agents and as in this case, potentially harmful gases.

Sensors small enough to slip into a person’s pocket, and others, possibly the size of shoeboxes, fitted to public buses will be developed as part of the MESSAGE project.

While sensor technology, like that provided by Owlstone will be an integral part of the research, computational technologies are jus as important.

The project will use pedestrians and buses to act as mobile sensors, collecting vital real time air quality data, but crucially, it will attempt to make effective use of the vast amounts of data to show how such things as the weather, street design and driving behaviour affect the build-up of traffic pollution.

MESSAGE will develop flexible and reusable sensors and a communications infrastructure to support a wide range of scientific, policy-related and commercial uses and applications for the data produced.

The Minister for Transport, Stephen Ladyman said: “The MESSAGE project will provide a much better, more detailed picture of the environmental impact of transport, allowing future decisions to be made on the basis of sound scientific evidence.

“We all now live in a data rich world and it is important that we have robust methods for handling this data, in real time. This project will enable the development of technologies to manage our transport systems as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

Dr Lesley Thompson of EPSRC said: “This project is an important element of EPSRC’s e-science programme. Transport offers many great challenges. We hope that this project will develop tools to tackle problems such as congestion and environmental pollution.

“The real time data handling methodologies to be developed by this project should have generic value wherever large amounts of data need to be processed in real time.”

e-Science allows researchers to have access to resources held on widely-dispersed computers as though they were on their own desktops. The resources include very large digital data collections, very large scale computing resources and high performance visualisation.

A computing grid allows these different resources to work together seamlessly across networks, enabling people to share resources and form virtual organisations.

As part of a parallel initiative, the Government has called for expressions of interest from industrial partners for its Future Intelligent Transport Systems (FITS) project.

FITS is intended to stimulate new ideas, concepts, products or services that will improve safety on roads by reducing collisions; develop better, more reliable, accessible and safer public transport services; improve efficiency in the road freight industry; improve road network management; and provide better travel information, allowing travellers to make informed choices on how and when to travel.

The closing date for expressions of interest is at noon on Friday, November 3.


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