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The Bettair team at Smart City Expo 2019, with CTO and co-founder Leonardo Santiago (far L) © CompassList

Combining smart sensors, AI and machine learning, Barcelona-based Bettair has developed a unique, affordable PaaS to accurately measure pollution levels in urban areas 

As the need to reduce air pollution gets more urgent, demand for reliable air quality monitoring systems in urban areas is fast increasing. Barcelona-based startup Bettair Cities is pitching an AI-based sensor-platform air monitoring solution that offers more accurate and faster readings, so cities can respond more quickly to spikes in pollution levels.

Every year in Europe, air pollution causes some 800,000 people to die prematurely as well as reduces the lifespan of the average European by more than two years. researchers estimate. At the same time, current EU laws require cities to regularly monitor air pollution and keep noxious emissions below legally set limits. 

These factors are serving to drive demand for more reliable air monitoring systems – a market forecast to grow to about $6.4bn by 2025 on a 7% CAGR from 2020. Currently, cities rely almost entirely on small monitoring stations that can cost hundreds of thousands of euros each. 

Seeking to disrupt the sector, Bettair will commercially launch its monitoring units early 2021 at a starting price of €4,500 each. Each sensor runs on a recyclable, replaceable cartridge costing half the price of a new sensor. Currently, because of EU requirements, pollution-monitoring sensors – and in the case of Bettair's product, cartridges – must be replaced every two years. Bettair hence reduces costs for its clients while creating a recurring revenue stream for itself.

Its system also offers 11 air quality indicators that measure six of the most commonly regulated urban contaminants in the same unit – a feat the company says is unique in the market. 

“These six contaminants [nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, and industrial contaminants sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide] are the standard ones monitored by current air monitoring stations,” Bettair CTO and co-founder Leonardo Santiago told CompassList at Barcelona's recent Smart City Expo World Congress. 

“Nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide are a general problem, the main source of pollution in European cities and are what municipal air quality teams are focusing on now.”  

Results in 5 minutes

The sensory units also measure the emissions of three sizes of particles – ultrafine particles, fine particular matter and particulate – as well as environmental variables like temperature, humidity and atmospheric pressure. It can also measure noise pollution in decibels and can be run on solar power, if needed.

Beyond the hardware, Bettair's air quality monitoring system incorporates a platform as a solution (PaaS) that stores and processes the raw data collected by the sensors. Using ML, the platform calculates contaminant concentrations with more than 90% accuracy, compared with around 60% using traditional equipment. The solution also pretty much runs in real time, taking just five minutes to deliver results on its platform, versus up to three hours for traditional monitoring stations. 

When Bettair first tried to introduce its system to the Catalonian government, the Generalitat, in 2016, the team was told that low-cost air quality sensors simply wouldn't work. Cities were used to expensive air pollution monitoring stations housed in small buildings and regularly maintained by teams of technicians. 

Bettair spotted another issue: existing solutions were often better suited to measuring pollution in industrial areas rather than urban areas, making them relatively unreliable tools for measuring air quality in cities. And so Bettair came up with cheaper, compact electro-chemical sensors that can be installed on city fixtures like lamp posts or traffic lights.

“Following tests of our technology with the Generalitat, their exact words were: 'we've never seen anything work this well before,'," Santiago said. This praise gave the founding team the confidence to formally launch Bettair Cities the following year. 

Convincing users through pilots  

The company is holding further municipal trials this year, before going to market in 2021. “Our idea is to use this year's pilots as a showcase to gain new customers, especially because many cities have been reluctant to try new technologies as there were similar cases in the past that did not work.” 

Bettair's cloud-based platform reports results from an unlimited number of sensors, allowing individual analysis from each unit – including historical data for each contaminant – to be mapped and displayed. “The easiest way to visualize all the data is by combining all of the pollutants measured into the single visual representing the air quality index.  On top of that, we can create heat maps to show on top of a map of a city for each specific pollutant,” said Santiago. 

The company is also adding an algorithm that incorporates additional external data from partners such as global weather forecast provider the Institute of Ubiquitous Meteorology, or Ubimet, to enable up to five days of air quality forecasts.

"We have done some preliminary tests and we have gotten very good results for the peaks in the pollution which is what matters, achieving correlations above 90% for the forecast. In the traditional system, there is no real-time forecast for air quality right now,” Santiago added. 

From pilots to profitability

Bettair was founded in 2017 after Narcis Clavell, under his guise of angel investor and President of tech consultancy Ateknea, participated in the Citi-Sense project funded by the European Commission that aimed to deploy sensors to improve the quality of urban life in eight European countries. Clavell, now also President of Bettair, recruited Ateknea's Head of IT Josep Perello and electronic engineer Santiago to develop a personal air quality monitor for the project. 

“After the project ended, we had a fairly good product to measure air quality and we noticed that traditional monitoring stations were expensive and there was a lack of low-cost solutions,” Santiago recalled. The trio founded Bettair Cities and began work on a “primitive form of algorithm to what we use now.” Perello is now Bettair's CEO.

Under the Citi-Sense project, Bettair conducted pilots in eight European cities, including Barcelona, enabling the startup to test its technology against traditional monitoring stations. EU cities must have a minimum number of weather stations per inhabitant. Barcelona, for example has seven, while the smaller Catalonian city of Girona has only one. “There, we installed four units, four times what they had,” Santiago said. 

Principally funded by Clavell and incubated at Ateknea's Barcelona office, Bettair has so far received a €50,000 Phase 1 grant from the EU's innovation funding mechanism, Horizon 2020, and is now seeking seed investment of €500,000–€1m. 

“The Horizon 2020 funding will allow us to do pilots in Barcelona, and another in an Italian city in a consortium including Cisco and Telecom Italy,” said Santiago.  

The company's pilots this year will integrate a LoRaWAN module (long-range, low-power wireless technology) in the node and test it in London and Santander, Spain. Bettair expects the pilots will help it recruit customers, whose profile will vary from city to city. 

“In some municipalities, there is a private company monitoring the air quality monitoring stations, in other cities it is a higher government body. For example, in Barcelona it is the Generalitat of Catalonia that manages all the region's monitoring stations,” Santiago said. Other potential customers are real-estate or housing management companies who could use low emissions readings as a sales tool. 

“Our ultimate aim is to go global with the product after [the] pilots,” Santiago said. “One of the best things is … we don’t need a high volume of sensors to be profitable” because the cartridge sales lock in recurring revenue. 

“We calculate that to break-even, we only have to be in two or three cities, though our goal is to be in 50–80 cities by 2026.”

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Edited by Sophie Douez, Bernice Tang

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