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How technology is helping clean up the environment in the skies and under the seas

In China, fighting pollution is one of the ‘three tough battles,’ together with poverty reduction and achieving financial stability.

An inspector checks air quality with the help of a drone equipped with the Sniffer4D sensor. Courtesy of Soarability via South China Morning Post.

Attached to a drone, the palm-sized device has a more acute sense of smell than a dog and can travel to heights out of reach of traditional air quality stations.

Called Sniffer4D, it can detect and analyze up to nine different types of gases and particles in the atmosphere in real time.

Developed by Shenzhen-based cleantech startup Soarability, the device can be attached to drones or ground vehicles, according to company founder and chief executive Steven Jiang.

First launched in 2018 and upgraded in April this year, it is now being used to monitor air pollution, ship emissions, pipelines, and hazardous material leakage in more than 20 countries, including China, the United States, and Japan.

“During our tests, Sniffer4D is not as accurate as the site-specific air detection stations, which are much larger and more expensive, but it performs better than traditional handheld devices,” Jiang said.

He added that the device is not intended to replace larger air quality stations, rather complement them with a mobile unit able to detect air quality beyond the reach of ground stations.

When Jiang, a native of China’s Guangxi province, was studying in New Zealand, he noticed that air quality can vary a great deal even within a small area—and that people would not notice.

“The hyperlocal and timely information [on air quality] can help [citizens and policymakers] make the best decisions,” Jiang said.

Besides hardware, the company also provides software that analyzes and visualizes in 3D the distribution of gas concentration in real time.

It plans to launch two new products soon: a drone module that can take gas samples from the air, and a drone accessory to measure wind speed and direction.

In China, fighting pollution is one of the “three tough battles,” together with poverty reduction and achieving financial stability, according to Chinese President Xi Jinping. However, concerns that economic growth will take precedence over environmental issues have surfaced after the world’s second largest economy suffered its first quarterly contraction on record amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The emphasis this year on pollution control and environmental protection has been less pronounced than in 2019,” said Christoph Nedopil Wang, director of the Green Belt and Road Initiative Center at the International Institute of Green Finance in Beijing.

“For this year, environmental protection is not center-stage, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. The big revelation will come with the next five-year plan [in 2021],” he said.

Read this: Could COVID-19 prompt more sustainable innovation to fight climate change in China?

Smell is not the only human sense being mimicked by technology in projects designed to protect the environment.

In the Philippines, an intelligent underwater camera system called CORaiL is being used to monitor reefs. Co-developed by US chip maker Intel, consulting company Accenture, and the locally-based Sulubaaï Environmental Foundation, it deploys intelligent underwater video cameras around reefs to identify the number and variety of fish, which is an important indicator of reef health.

Coral reefs are being endangered and rapidly degraded by overfishing, bottom trawling, warming temperatures, and unsustainable coastal development. Traditionally, reef health has been monitored by human divers who manually capture video footage and take photos.

Since being deployed in May 2019, CORaiL has collected about 70,000 images. The technology “can be easily deployed in any country. While there is no plan in the short term to deploy it in China, this could be envisaged in the coming months,” an Accenture spokesman said in an emailed response to the South China Morning Post.

It is more eco-friendly than humans because it does not disrupt marine life behavior and is more efficient because it can operate much longer than a recreational diver who can normally stay underwater for just an hour, the spokesman said.

Soarability’s Jiang said that in China, the environment business is mostly toG (to-government) and driven by policy changes, whereas in other markets the demand is more from the private sector.

A major policy change occurred last July when Shanghai initiated compulsory household garbage sorting, giving a boost to cleantech in the megalopolis.

In response, China’s AI national champion iFlyTek created an audio and image recognition system that helps residents categorize waste so it goes into the correct recycle bin. The technology can also be licensed by waste sorting companies to improve efficiency.

Ding Rui, director of product solutions at iFlyTek Open Platform, said when the policy was introduced, “quite a number of clients” reached out to the company for a solution but demand has cooled lately.

“As more policies are introduced, the market will be promising,” Ding said.

Besides Shanghai, 45 other major Chinese cities have said they plan to establish a basic waste sorting system by the end of the year and smaller cities will follow suit by 2025, according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development.

This article was originally published by the South China Morning Post