Breathe Cam

Pittsburghers can start to breathe easier thanks to a new camera system, announced today, that monitors visual pollution. Developed in the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, the Breathe Cam is a system of four zoomable, live-feed cameras, posted at different points within the city, that produces high resolution, panoramic pictures of Downtown, East End and Mon Valley skylines.

Yes, you can estimate pollution levels simply by looking at the horizon. But these cameras are connected to the Allegheny County Health Department’s air quality monitors for real-time data so you can get ozone readings and pollutant levels. And anyone can access the images–zooming on pollution sources– via the system’s website to keep a constant watch over the region’s air quality.

Work was funded by The Heinz Endowments as part of its environmental initiative, The Breathe Project.

“We have a lot of hills and industry by the rivers. Because of that, the exhaust follows the rivers,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics at CMU. “The really interesting (camera images) are the ones facing Braddock (from the camera posted on Walnut Towers in Squirrel Hill) and Downtown, facing the Ohio Valley and Heinz Field (from the camera posted atop EQT Plaza on Liberty Ave.). They show the pollution in the valleys,” he says.

There are also cameras mounted on Mount Washington’s Trimont Towers and on the University of Pittsburgh’s Benedum Hall.

Nourbakhsh, who is working with fellow CREATE Lab researchers Randy Sargent and Paul Dille, says that the goal is to have the public explore and share through social media the changes tracked through the website’s calendar and images of air quality.

They will also be offering Breathe Cam services to other cities after this release.

“It is likely we will start with central Atlantic cities that have pollution issues first,” he says.

Soon, the researchers hope to further develop the system to monitor and measure neighborhood pollutants, such as from a nearby outdoor wood stove, by placing a cell phone on a window sill. Nourbakhsh says that the first prototype is being used by “a member of the public” and this technology will most likely be available in six months.

“Air quality is something all of us are affected by. We all need to be knowledgeable together. This visual evidence helps us see the problems and helps us to become motivated to solve the problems,” he says.  To learn more about actions you can take to protect our air, check out the website. 

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer who has reported for many local publications. When she isn't writing she serves as a media consultant for nonprofits and other local companies.