When Robert Heinecke, now CEO of Breeze, was working as a management consultant in Istanbul in 2014, the city’s intense smog gave him health problems—burning eyes, sore throat, and headaches. With no wind and lots of trapped exhaust from automotive traffic and gas heaters, he says, “You couldn’t even see the next building from across the road.”
He had naively thought that only Beijing experienced smog like that. “This opened my eyes,” he adds. “Every city is facing it nowadays. It’s just that in many cities you can’t see it anymore.”
Better Technology to Address Air Pollution for Offices and Smart Cities
Heinecke decided to do something about it, and in 2015 he and two colleagues —technologists Sascha Kuntze and Jan Rübbelke—founded Breeze in Hamburg. The goal of the company, he says, is “helping people to understand what they can do about air quality.” That applies equally to companies that want to protect their employees and municipalities that want to protect their citizens.
According to Heinecke, three big problems have hampered other efforts in this vein:
- Traditional air quality monitoring equipment comes in a package the size of a shipping container. It’s too complex and expensive to be practical for most uses.
- Users have been on their own to interpret data. While cities might have a department to translate environmental data into actionable policies, companies almost never do.
- There hasn’t been an effective process of knowledge transfer from one company to another, one city to another, or even one city department to another.
Breeze is working to change all of that with its smart sensors and a data-driven approach to finding solutions.
Smart Sensors and Machine Learning for Better Air Quality
Breeze’s sensors are a far cry from shipping containers. The small, inconspicuous units look a bit like smoke detectors, but they collect air-quality data every 30 seconds around the clock and stream it to Breeze’s cloud-based system. There, sensor data is combined with information on weather and traffic patterns and fed into machine-learning algorithms.
Breeze’s analytics are informed by client questionnaires about HVAC systems in their buildings, as well as by scientific findings—for example from a recent Harvard study showing that worker productivity can plummet by 50% because of bad air quality. Automated analysis plus expert review enable Breeze to suggest remediation steps and evaluate the impact of interventions.
For business offices, Breeze can track the presence of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide to identify root causes. For example, data for one client revealed large spikes in sulfur dioxide every morning and evening. Breeze’s analysis showed that the client was opening windows for ventilation at the wrong times of day, and that the parking pattern next to the building made the problem even worse. By opening the windows on a different schedule and having employees park the other way around, the issue was immediately resolved.
Tackling air pollution for cities is more complicated. There, Breeze aims to be an information tool that helps city departments address livability. As part of a 2017 Fraunhofer Institute project, Breeze will use its tough, weatherproof sensors in a monitoring network to show the environmental impacts of actions such as traffic abatement, even on a hyperlocal level.
“You can’t do this if you have, say, only ten measurement points in your whole city,” Heinecke explains. “But if you have 1,000 or 5,000 sensors, then you can see this very well.” One goal is to combine sensor data with centralized information management to improve city processes, for instance by changing traffic-light patterns in real time to address pollution hot spots.
Designing a Better Air Quality Sensor with Fusion 360
Initial Breeze prototypes were made using off-the-shelf casings, with Arduino or Raspberry Pi boards inside. “We weren’t very design-conscious at that point,” Heinecke admits. Now, though, the team is also focused on aesthetics, maintainability, and ease of installation.
The Breeze team heard about Fusion 360 through Autodesk’s Entrepreneur Impact Program. Since then, lead designer Annika Klüpfel has been using it to model sensor casings. She says that “It is remarkable to what extent [Fusion 360] can be used intuitively once you’ve learned about basic principles like sketch vs. model, [or] drawing in 2D then constructing in 3D.”
Heinecke points out that interior configuration is also very important. To reduce energy usage and noise, they don’t want to use fans, which means that they have to pay close attention to airflow intakes and ventilation patterns within the device. Klüpfel adds that “the detailed and well-simulated physics” within Fusion 360 mean that “any flaws in construction are detected immediately in the process of developing.”
“The cloud features are also great,” Klüpfel adds. “As a team we are able to collaboratively use them to review the current design and discuss it even when not physically in the same location.” Even better, Fusion 360 allows them to save a lot of money on software, which is especially important given that, as Klüpfel points out, “we are a startup and hence have a very limited budget.”
Klüpfel summarizes their experience by calling Fusion 360 “a great tool for quick yet detailed mockups as well as final product designs.”
Scaling Up for Bigger Impact
So far, Breeze has used 3D printing to make its sensors, but now they are developing molds with manufacturing partners in Germany as they look to grow the business. They are looking to their partnerships with Fraunhofer and B2B companies to prove their ideas at scale.
Meanwhile, they’re also contributing to the research community. Heinecke, for instance, regularly speaks about air quality at international conferences. The goal, he says, is not only to fit a niche in the business market, but to make their own small positive impact on health, lifespan, and quality of life.