Disrupters: Devices for the Digital Economy, Mastering the Elements

Danielle Beurteaux

Image Credit: Skydrop


Millions of people have taken to wearing face masks to protect themselves from air pollution, and no wonder: particulate matter from pollution—miniscule particles in the air—is responsible for more than 3 million premature deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization. Vehicle traffic is responsible for most of this pollution, followed by fuel burning. How can we know how safe the air is to breathe? Arm ourselves with information that will help us take precautions and create change.


Credit: Flow

Flow, from Paris-based Plume Labs, is a personal sensor that monitors and tracks air pollution. The small, US$199 device contains customizable sensors that track extra-fine dust; nitrogen dioxide, which is produced by fuels; and volatile organic compounds (gases) emitted by many everyday household and industrial products. Plume Labs’ environmental AI uses the data collected by Flow devices to track urban air pollution in real time. All that data is used for the Plume.io air quality report and smartphone app, which uses more than 10 billion geolocated values generated per year to offer pollution forecasts for people on the street, researchers, and businesses. Plume.io can also be integrated with Amazon Echo for voice-generated air quality updates.

Flow has been beta tested in London, a city that The Guardian recently reported has one of the world’s worst urban pollution problems. The first units are scheduled to ship to Kickstarter backers in June 2018.


Credit: Green City Solutions

Communities that want a relaxing oasis, data about the local environment, and cleaner air can get all three in one structure. Green City Solutions’ CityTree looks like a bench with a green wall growing out of it. Each wall is planted with mosses, which naturally purify and cool the surrounding air (decorative plants can be added). The plants help to improve air quality and mitigate urban heat islands—city areas that are warmer than surrounding areas because of pavement, cars, and energy use. Sensors track and monitor air quality and how the CityTree is functioning. The units are powered by solar panels and contain a tank that distributes water to the plants, making them self-maintaining. The collected data is available on a computer dashboard that provides air quality information around each CityTree installation so that changes in air quality and temperature can be monitored.


Water and electricity are integral to our wellbeing and quality of life. Using both takes a toll on the environment, however, and monitoring and managing resource consumption hasn’t been easy for individuals. But by compiling data and presenting historical views, new devices aim to make us more aware of when and how we consume water and electricity—and what it costs—so we can change wasteful habits.


Credit: Skydrop

As droughts become more common, managing and reducing water use in our homes and communities has become pressing. Skydrop’s Smart Watering system customizes garden irrigation for any environment, down to each type of plant. Trees, grass, and ornamental plants need different amounts of water; by using algorithms that interpret local weather to create adaptive, real-time irrigation, the US$299.99 device creates the ideal watering schedule to keep plants in good health without wasting water. The system wires into existing irrigation systems and uses Wi-Fi to connect with local weather info. Homeowners can monitor and adjust water use, schedules, and amounts using either the unit’s LCD screen or a smartphone app, and they can integrate Skydrop technology with a smart home system. For large areas, like parks, Skydrop systems can be linked.



Credit: Sense

Typical energy monitors tell you how much power you are using in aggregate. Sense’s eponymous device goes deeper, telling homeowners which devices and appliances use the most energy. When integrated into conventional electricity panels, the Wi-Fi–enabled, US$299 device collects data on how much electricity is being consumed by each appliance and device in the home. By using the unique electrical fingerprint of everything that’s plugged in, the company’s algorithms can differentiate between appliances and detail how much each is using, when, and for how long, sampling data at a rate of 1 million times per second. Homeowners who have solar panels can purchase a $349 version of the device that tracks electricity production and usage to figure out peak energy production periods and adjust usage accordingly. The data is delivered through a smartphone app, which can also calculate the cost for powering different appliances and devices if a homeowner manually enters their energy rate.

The company recently released the beta of Sense HomeCheck, a service designed to gather data from the community of Sense users about electricity failures, like surges, brownouts, and curious spikes in energy usage. The goal of HomeCheck is to train Sense to automatically recognize problems. So far, Sense knows when solar inverters aren’t working correctly to generate electricity and alerts homeowners.


Seventy percent of the globe is covered by water, and 97% of the world’s water is ocean. According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we’ve explored less than 5% of the ocean waters. With climate change altering ocean ecosystems, we’re in a race to fill this vast void of knowledge before the damage is irreversible. Two projects are harnessing enthusiastic citizen scientists to help by collecting data on ocean environments.


Credit: Smartfin

Although shorelines might seem accessible to researchers, waves make nearshore environments challenging places to install information-collection devices like sensors and buoys. A collaboration among environmental art nonprofit Lost Bird, research institute Scripps Institution of Oceanography, surfing nonprofit Surfrider Foundation, and surfboard fin maker Futures Fins is getting an assist from surfers.

Lost Bird’s Smartfin device is a surfboard fin that contains a battery, circuit board, inductive charger (to enable recharging without a plug), and sensors that measure temperature, salinity, and pH levels. Surfers collect data as they ride the waves and then upload it to the project’s servers using a smartphone app. Future fin iterations will expand to include more measurements.

Beta testing began in spring of 2017 with 50 surfers from Surfrider’s San Diego County Chapter. They collected over 620 hours of temperature, GPS, and wave motion data, which Scripps will use—and eventually make available to the public—for research.


Credit: Trident

When a couple of citizen scientists wanted to investigate sunken ships, they invented a remote-operated vehicle that could go where they couldn’t. Engineers Eric Stackpole and David Lang created the OpenROV company, based in Berkeley, California, and the Trident underwater drone to help other citizen scientists explore the deep.

The Trident can submerge up to 100 meters and travel 2 meters per second. The onboard camera can stream high-definition video at 30 frames per second and has three settings—single image, burst, and interval—for still images. The unit weighs 3.4 kilograms, making it easy to transport, and contains a magnetometer, gyroscope, accelerometer, barometer, and depth sensor.

The first units, priced at US$1,699, are scheduled to be shipped to Kickstarter backers in spring 2018. For DIYers, there’s an open-source OpenROV 2.8 kit available for $899. So that Trident users can share their findings, the founders started OpenExplorer, a community-driven site where liked-minded explorers of all stripes can post details about their expeditions. Tridents have already been used to gather images of the Arctic sea floor, survey invasive lionfish populations in Florida, and track sea star wasting disease off the coast of California. D!

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.