“Oh, here comes one now,” the engineer says, pointing up. In a blink, a capsule about the size of a paint can has shot across the ceiling in a pneumatic tube. Inside is a sample of soil collected from one of hundreds of monitoring spots across Jiangsu province, on China’s central eastern coast.
The capsule lands in a device like a vending machine, and a lab technician swipes his key card to lift it out. Here on the 8th floor of the Jiangsu Environmental Monitoring Centre, he’ll test the sample for the presence of volatile organic compounds. Certain compounds are extremely poisonous and can cause liver, brain and kidney damage. They can also be extremely difficult to detect without complex equipment and processes.
Other samples of the soil have been delivered throughout the building for other tests. Pollutants such as volatile organic compounds or heavy metals may have found their way into the soil through industrial waste, contaminated groundwater or other methods. The Centre is working to identify and prevent risks to health and the environment from soil, air and water pollution.
The pneumatic tubes also ship the air samples around the 11-floor complex. In contrast to the steampunk conveyance of the tubes, water samples are shuttled around on the backs of autonomous shin-high robots.
Just outside the soil lab, one of them is impatiently trying to navigate around a visiting group of students who have accidentally blocked its path. The robot inches forward. Suddenly, it sees a gap in the forest of legs and whirs off down the hall to deliver its cargo. Absentminded students are hardly an obstacle. The little robot will even navigate stairs on its own.
Robots and pneumatic tubes may seem only a novelty, but they are part of a larger system of automation that China’s most densely populated province hopes will help them proactively neutralize environmental problems.
The automation is anything but a gimmick. Jiangsu has spent over US$120 million (CNY840 million) on retooling their monitoring efforts, rolling out advanced remote sensors and lab equipment in early 2019. Jiangsu is now the first province in China to have automatic air quality monitoring stations in every county and city. Over 200 stations are gathering data from sensors located across the province—even on drones and unmanned ships. This data is fed into a custom US$4.3 million (CNY30 million) monitoring and analysis programme that allows the Centre to predict environmental conditions. They release monthly results and a weekly forecast to the public, available on a website, app and through other media.
“Talk about the environment has reached a fever pitch, but it’s critical we back this up with action.” said Joyce Msuya, Acting Executive Director of UN Environment. “Here in Jiangsu we have a massive investment in the environment and the well-being of the 80 million people living here. It’s leadership and it’s what we need more of.”
The weekly forecasts don’t only inform the public. They inform government policy. When air quality is forecasted to worsen to a certain level, colour codes are issued and the government implements predetermined controls to rein in pollutants. A specific list of companies may have to reduce production for low-level yellow alerts. At orange, certain vehicles will be prohibited from the roads. In an extreme red code situation, steel and cement plants may have to reduce output or shut down entirely and construction can be halted to reduce dust.
These worst-case scenarios are rare. Last year there were only a handful of yellow and orange codes. Even so, Wei Cheng, Director of the Centre, is not dismissive of the problem. “Air pollution is a challenge for all humankind,” he says.
But he is hopeful. “I’m confident that air and water pollution will be improved. As President Xi has said, it’s a shared future. We need to pull together resources to tackle this problem we all face. All countries should do their utmost to protect the environment.”