A US investor-backed Auckland company, MACSO, is using artificial intelligence to detect and measure air impurities arising from vaping and cigarette smoke.

In trials the technology has already been proven to reduce illicit vaping in one New Zealand middle school.

MACSO is partnering with US-based Piera Systems, who has developed a family of ‘intelligent particle sensors’ and is providing the hardware to fit MACSO’s AI model to measure air quality. As soon as vape particles are detected, a customised alert is sent in real time to those responsible for responding.

Saba Samiei, MACSO founder and CEO.

The solution also has a dashboard with a time stamp, to identify when vaping occurs, ensuring a comprehensive approach to air quality monitoring.

“As a purpose-driven AI company, dedicated to bringing the positive impact of artificial intelligence to the world, we are proud to be working with Piera on the mission to make schools vape and smoke-free to enable the next generation to study in a safe and healthy environment,” MACSO founder Saba Samiei says.

“Piera’s devices are a quarter of their competitor’s price for the same solution.”

MACSO has also recently installed artificial intelligence-enabled audio sensors for respiratory health monitoring of animals on commercial animal farms in China.

Both MACSOs solutions maintain a comprehensive record of each incident, allowing for the generation of detailed reports that are instrumental for trend analysis and policy assessment.

“What we have is a solution that is specifically trained to detect vape smoke using artificial intelligence,” Samiei says.

“We looked at existing solutions, such as fire alarms or other vape detection sensors. We realised, fire alarms can’t detect vape particles – other sensors showed that they could be fooled if someone sprayed deodorant. We also noticed some approaches such as audio or video which are expensive and breach student’s privacy and are at high risk of getting hacked. So, we developed a model that can differentiate between what is deodorant, what is smoke, and what is vape. Applying this model to Piera aerosol sensors on the edge means the solution is cost effective and protects everyone’s privacy.”

Raj Seelam, Piera’s VP of Marketing and Customer Success, says Piera is the world’s only low-cost centre that has scalable sensors to detect particle data.

“We measure particle counts. Most others measure particle mass. It’s very imperfect science. But MACSO has this world class process that converts data into meaningful insights.”

One device can motor nearly 100 square metres, Seelam says, with Piera having capacity to ship 5000 devices per month to New Zealand.

“The denser the device deployment, the better the results are – 50-100 devices per 1000 square metres will achieve blanket coverage.”

Despite vaping being unlawful for anyone under 18, Samiei says vaping has been an issue in schools, particularly in bathrooms. The number of New Zealanders aged 15-17 who vaped daily nearly quadrupled from under two percent in 2018-19 to seven percent in 2021-22, according to data from the New Zealand Health Survey. But younger children are vaping daily, as vapes are easy to acquire and get addicted to, affecting all students.

“One of the biggest issues isn’t just the kids who vape, it’s the ones who don’t,” says Samiei.

MACSO piloted a device in a bathroom at Cambridge Middle School a few months ago. Within two weeks the bathroom became vape free. Students realised they would be caught using vape products.

Piera’s Canaree air quality monitor.

“Cambridge Middle School was delighted that the vaping activity ceased. Student Voice confirmed that students felt safer using the bathrooms,” Assistant Principal Natalie Marsh says.

While Piera’s Canaree air quality monitors provide real time vaping alerts, it’s the AI provided by MACSO that gives the devices the edge over any detection through audio or video. Its software has improved the accuracy and speed of Piera’s devices’ ability to detect vape aerosols in vulnerable environments like schools, hospitals, and hotels. The algorithm was deployed eight times faster with MACSO’s platform, with the accuracy of the model to detect aerosols improving by 15 percent.

Seelam says some students use body spray in toilets to mask vape smoke, but that won’t work with MACSO’s model.

“MACSO’s AI model is so good that it can distinguish between vape, smoke and body spray. Its model really takes it to the next level because the accuracy of the detection really goes up. Vaping has a unique signature, and MACSO models are looking for these signatures in the air; that’s how we detect it.”

“What we are doing now is bringing MACSOs model to market and deploying it. The first deployment will happen in New Zealand but we’re talking to schools here in the United States and customers in the United Kingdom.”

The devices can also monitor for wildfire smoke, as well as cooking, Seelam says.

“There are applications beyond vape smoke and that’s where we intend to continue our partnership with MACSO.

“We actually have a customer who is working on an application where they would help amateur chefs cook steak or salmon to perfection. Based on the number of particles it will automatically shut the stove down, so you won’t over-cook it,” says Seelam.

Piera’s vape and smoke solution devices will be distributed and installed in New Zealand by Vanguard Group. Samiei says deployment will extend beyond schools and could include hospitals and hotels.

“We’re already talking to a hotel chain that is interested, and encourage schools, hospitals and other businesses that want to make their environment vape free to get in touch with us.”

Story by Dave Crampton

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