The tower uses sensors and artificial intelligence to collect and analyze data on environmental conditions for a variety of research projects.

Ohio airport tower offers ‘unique opportunity’ to measure real-time environmental data

The Ohio State University Airport has a new 30-foot tower, but it’s not for directing plane traffic. It uses sensors and artificial intelligence to collect and analyze real-time data on environmental conditions for a variety of research projects.

The National Ecological Observatory Network, a facility funded by the National Science Foundation and operated by Columbus, Ohio-based scientific nonprofit Battelle, built the tower. It is one of 81 NEON sites across the country where data is collected to better understand how ecosystems are changing.

However, Ohio State is the first NEON site to host a mobile, temporary field site. It will be in place for about two months. This is also the first urban NEON tower deployment.

“This is a unique opportunity for our researchers to help understand environmental conditions in urban areas, such as carbon emissions, noise and air pollution, and how it changes in real time,” Tanya Berger-Wolf, director of Ohio State’s Translational Data Analytics Institute, said in a news release.  

The research

The system collects data about air conditions — including temperature, wind speed and direction, and humidity — that could affect carbon emissions, noise, and pollution levels. Soil sensors measure carbon levels, moisture, and temperature.

The system’s machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities extract information from the individual, complex data streams and analyze it. It produces insights into the impact of airplane emissions on the environment.

One of the researchers’ goals is to determine how they can do this sophisticated computing far from any major computer servers.

“Being the first mobile deployment of this kind, we need to test how to collect the data, what conditions we may need to tweak, what sensors we need to use, and the analytical methods we need to deploy to interpret the data,” Berger-Wolf said.

Other uses

The tower and system’s machine learning methods are used for other research projects as well.

Another research team installed a sensor that measures air quality, specifically fine particulate matter produced by car and airplane traffic. They are using the gathered data to estimate the effects of pollution exposure on human health, including respiratory diseases and anxiety. This team hopes to combine their data with other data from around Columbus to develop a holistic look at pollution across the city and how it affects human health.

“Most of the studies that have looked at the effects of air pollutants on human health measured exposure at homes,” said Huyen Le, assistant professor of geography. “We need to quantify how much exposure people receive as they move around during the day, such as in traffic and at [the] workplace.”

Researchers hope to secure more funding so they can move the mobile tower to another site in the city for further data collection and analysis after the two-month stint at the airport.

“It’s important to have a setting in an urban area because urban ecosystems are the ones where the interface between nature and humans is most dynamic and acute,” Berger-Wolf said. “And we really don’t have enough information about how our human activity affects natural ecosystems and affects the environment.”