While, like everyone else, I am working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have had time to think. As well as checking news and updates about prevention measures (and, hopefully, soon a vaccine), I started considering the advances made in the BioTech and HealthTech spaces.

Despite being slowed massively by the pace of regulation and health governing bodies, there are already many promising initiatives in this space demonstrating the potential of technology to improve health and wellbeing. This ranges from simple data collection to the automation and implementation of measures that could save lives (or at least ameliorate health conditions) in our homes, workplaces and on the move in our cities.

Coming back to COVID-19 for a moment, one of the prevention measures that stood out to me (on top of the handwashing and social distancing that has become our daily mantra) was looking after the air quality in our homes. It is something that can really improve respiratory health – especially if you are self-isolating or shielding.

Improving air quality in our homes and cities is an objective that, if achieved at scale, would have significant healthcare-related and environmental benefits for everyone. As things stand today, we already have the technology to help us monitor the air quality in our homes.

Air quality monitors are smart devices that measure the level of common air pollutants – and are available for both indoor and outdoor settings. Indoor monitors are typically sensor-based instruments. They often come as mixed gas units and measure ppb levels (the number of particles per billion). Sensor-based instruments and air quality monitoring systems are used widely in outdoor ambient applications.

Typically, air quality monitors have three sensors that monitor:

  • oxygen
  • carbon monoxide
  • carbon dioxide

The oxygen sensor is an electrochemical sensor. Any gas that can be oxidised or reduced electrochemically can be detected by this type of fuel-based sensor. The consumption of oxygen produces a current that is linearly proportional to the concentration of gas in air, which is how the sensor detects it. Since the oxygen sensor is constantly exposed to oxygen, the normal life of the sensor is between 1-2 years.

The carbon monoxide sensor is also an electrochemical sensor, which operates by the same basic principles as the oxygen sensor. It consumes minute amounts of gas, with the absorption of gas and electric output being controlled by a ‘diffusion barrier’.

The carbon dioxide sensor is, instead, an infrared detection sensor, which operates by transmitting an infrared beam through the sample. This absorbs the energy of the beam, depending on the concentration of carbon dioxide present, and detects how much of the infrared beam’s energy is left after passing through the sample. It then converts this to a reading of carbon dioxide concentration.

That is how the sensors get their readings, but what makes the devices smart are the connectivity components which can transmit these measurements, via WIFI, Bluetooth or any other data transmission protocol. We have implemented this kind of technology before to monitor air quality in the home or in workplaces. And it does provide great insight into how clean the air in your room or shared workspace is.

This could certainly help individuals currently confined to quarantine in their homes, making sure they have the right oxygen flux and healthy clean air. And, if they don’t, they will know to take manual steps such as opening windows or turning on an air purifier. In some cases, when a certain level of pollution is detected, automation on the monitors can trigger the air purifier to start or send app notifications to the user.

We are just starting to scratch the surface regarding the potential for such technologies to improve our daily lives. Collecting data and providing insight is something we can do today. And the potential is there for air quality monitoring devices to extend to include sensors for all known air pollutants – and even sensors for viral and bacterial elements in the air.

These sensors could also share data with appropriate individuals – under the tight control of the device owner, of course. For example, it could make sure your doctor is aware of the conditions in your house and help healthcare organisations monitor the spread of pandemics. Automation can also introduce localised decision making, from simply opening a window automatically to deploying counter measures that could help save lives.

It is, indeed, a difficult time we live in. But, in retrospect, we have made a lot of progress with healthcare, biotech and information technologies – and this makes me feel optimistic about the future.

We have to learn from our experiences, and we have the right tools to make the future a better place. These are measures as Smart Citizens we should be readily able to subscribe to in the future.