Traditionally, air quality has been monitored by expensive, complex devices. These barriers meant that only government agencies and other large organizations could afford to collect this kind of data. Even then, this information reflected the air quality for a broader region, not a specific area.

Now a new generation of inexpensive, portable devices is allowing targeted air quality monitoring. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is testing these devices in cities across the U.S., creating a better picture of the air residents breathe. Here are three highlights.

Have a seat

An air quality monitoring bench in Durham, North Carolina (EPA)

The next time you sit on a bench in Washington’s National Zoo or in Philadelphia’s Independence National Park, it might offer you more than a rest.

The EPA is unveiling air quality monitoring devices that double as ordinary benches. Seven cities across the U.S., including Chicago and Kansas City, will host prototypes of these high-tech rest areas as part of the EPA’s Village Green Project.

Powered by wind and solar, each monitoring station is built into the bench structure. Air sensors continuously measure ozone gas components and particulate matter, wirelessly transmitting the results online.

“We wanted to put these monitoring devices into close proximity to people so it could be interactive,” said Ron Williams, a senior researcher with the EPA. “People can go to a website and see a scrolling message for minute-by-minute updates.

Citizen scientists

One of Newark’s air monitoring devices (EPA)

Newark, New Jersey, is near the state’s largest garbage incinerator and other waste management facilities, not to mention a network of major highways and rail lines that crisscross the area. Naturally, residents are concerned about their air quality.

In partnership with the Ironbound Community Corporation, a local citizens group, the EPA has designed and deployed four basketball-sized devices throughout Newark. The project, known as the Citizen Science Air Monitors, relies on resident volunteers to operate the user-friendly devices, which are moved to new locations weekly.

“Newark is a pilot program for this type of partnership,” Williams said. “We built a specific device for them that begins operating at the turn of a key and starts collecting data.”

Each unit is capable of measuring humidity, temperature and nitrogen dioxide particulates that are 1/30th the diameter of a human hair.

Take a ride

Mobile devices help researchers gather specific air quality data. (EPA)

While devices such as benches and box-shaped monitors are stationary, the EPA has piloted a mobile approach in cities such as Los Angeles. Vehicles mounted with a large antenna adorned with air sensory and mapping equipment allow regulators to track pollutants as they drive.

With current methods of air monitoring, regulators can only collect limited air samples that are then analyzed in a laboratory — a time-consuming process. Mobile methods can cast a wider net, yielding larger, more informative samples analyzed in real time.

Ultimately, the EPA hopes mobile technology becomes cost-effective for companies in the energy sector to use for monitoring unexpected problems, such as gas leaks from underground pipes. Quicker responses would let companies contain air quality issues and keep them from spreading, leading to improved safety for nearby communities.