Women in Tech

Meet the female engineers creating a more sustainable world

12th August 2021
Joe Bush

Two women are leading the way in automated environmental sensing and waste tracking. Marie-Pierre Ducharme, Mouser Electronics reports.

The environment, and the rate at which climate change is occurring, is a topic that affects everyone. Whether it is concern for health of themselves and future generations or concern for the increasingly severe weather and the associated wildfires, floods and landslides, the effects on humans can be profound and devastating.

Management thinker Peter Drucker is credited with saying: “If you measure, then it will improve” - a reference to first having to be aware of the problem, and that awareness leading to improvement. This is true in environmental monitoring and the reason why we are increasingly measuring the air, water, biodiversity, waste and more.

The United Nations has driven a series of conferences under the ‘Conference of the parties’ (COP) banner to keep a focus on the need for environmental change. The 26th annual summit (COP26) will take place in the UK in 2021 with more than 190 world leaders expected to attend. A primary goal of COP26 is to ‘secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach’.

Increasingly, sensing technology is able to cover every inch of our planet, including remote areas and oceans, through the use of advanced technologies. The continued advancement of these monitoring systems and the processing and understanding of the big data they generate is key to understanding how the environment is changing and, ultimately, achieving the goals for a more sustainable world. A huge engineering effort is involved and, as we shall see, female engineers are playing a pioneering role in many areas.

Monitoring air, water and soil

Air, water and soil are three key indictors of the health of the environment. Air pollutants are known for their adverse effect on human health and ecosystems as well as their ability to erode technical infrastructure and assets such as historic monuments. Monitoring air quality can identify specific pollutants and poorly-performing sectors such as energy, transport, industry, agriculture and waste, allowing for policy to be introduced or amended to address specific issues.

One company that is taking a new (and patented) approach to monitoring air quality is qAIRa. Founded by entrepreneur and mechatronics engineer Monica Abarca (below), the innovative company uses extensive networks of unmanned aerial vehicles (‘drones’) along with a low-cost static module to monitor air quality. The cost-effective solution monitors a wide range of parameters (CO, NO2, SO2, H2S, O3, dust PM2.5, dust PM10, temperature, relative humidity, atmospheric pressure, UV radiation and noise level), sending the data to the company’s servers where it is processed and displayed on a web-based map or qAIRamap – a mobile application. As this application is open publicly, it allows citizens to be aware of air quality where they live, filling an information gap.

Keeping on top of waste

The construction industry is noted for producing over 50% of the world’s waste and, while early steps are being taken to move to zero carbon materials, this change will take some time. According to Bill Gates’ blog, over the next 40 years the construction industry will build two trillion square feet of buildings – the equivalent of building New York City once a month, every month for the next 40 years. Within this is a lot of steel and concrete, both of which are significant contributors to global carbon emissions.

However, the most immediate positive environmental impact in the construction industry will not be achieved by moving to net-zero materials, but by managing waste within materials currently being used. Fortunately, not only will this have a positive impact on carbon emissions, it will also rapidly improve the cost base of construction projects.

Qflow is a company that was co-founded by Brittany Harris (below) in May 2018 with the sole purpose of improving the environment. Their vision is of a construction industry that uses only the resources that it needs in the most efficient way possible, thereby delivering a built environment that meets the needs of society without compromising the environment for future generations.

The vision is achieved by working with construction teams to enable them to track and manage their social and environmental impact using a data-driven approach. Qflow are building an automated data collection / aggregation platform for construction projects that will create the industry’s most comprehensive dataset relating to the socio-environmental impacts of construction activities. Through the utilisation of digital technology, the need for on-site environmental teams is eliminated.

Conclusion

The environment, and the associated climate change is rapidly becoming the key issue for mankind as we start to see the effects of extreme weather becoming the ‘norm’ rather than the exception. It comes as no surprise that women are playing a pivotal role in developing ideas, techniques and successful businesses that are bringing this issue to the fore and, ultimately, helping us address the issue for future generations.

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