Environment

This cute glowing radon sensor could save your life

By Kitty Knowles 4 October 2017
Summary

Did you know radon is the second biggest cause of lung cancer?

In comics, radioactivity might be how Peter Parker turned into superhero Spiderman, but in real life it can have far from ‘super’ effects.

Radon, a natural gas emitted from uranium in the earth, is the second biggest cause of lung cancer after smoking.

You can’t see it, feel it, or smell it, but in the UK alone it kills over 1,100 people each year – a figure that rises to more than 20,000 in the US. And radon is emitted all over the world.

Today some people already have radon detectors in their homes, but these often complex machines aren’t exactly widespread.

AirThings wants to change that with a device called ‘Wave’ – a cute glowing sensor anyone can use.

“We’re working on bringing awareness to the public,” said CTO Erlend Bolle when we met him at Oslo Innovation Week.

“We want to making the technology user-friendly and easy to understand.”

Meet AirThings

AirThings was founded in Oslo in 2008 “to make radon reading more accessible,” Bolle explains.

The problem with traditional readers (and even AirThings’ early prototypes) is that they measure radon in the relatively obscure unit of ‘becquerels per cubic meter’, with complicated stats and percentages.

“Our first product hit more of the ‘techie’ side of the market, the ones that were more informed, and could interpret the numbers,” says Bolle. “But there are a lot of customers out there who are not so tech-savvy.”

“We are trying to hit everyone from new moms to the geeks or just the normal, average homeowner.”

Making home health human

The beauty of AirThings’ new radon reader lies in its simplicity.

Its minimalist round white disc sits inconspicuously in any home, and a simple wave over the device prompts an ebb of light that’s either green (everything’s fine), amber (cause for caution) or red (time to take action).

It’s almost ‘cute’ looking.

Those wanting to dig into the data can, of course, do so with the AirThings app (which also clearly tracks radon accumulation with a rising and falling wave).

But the product doesn’t need an app to be understood. “We have a lot of customers who don’t have a smartphone, or are not super tech savvy,” Bolle explains.

The future

Already Airthings is proving popular, with over 100,000 devices sold across more than 50 countries (the team now has offices in Oslo, Norway, Chicago, and Quebec).

“Our biggest market is the US but it’s not because they have more radon, it’s just that they are more aware of the problem than other countries,” says Bolle.

For Bolle, the aim is to make radon sensors a common part of every home: “To make air quality and air radon detectors as common as smoke detectors, that’s our long term goal.”

Indeed the team has also started integrating the device with Amazon’s Alexa, and hopes that over time, data gathered by the devices will be able to support medical research.

“There is no radon map you can look at,” says Bolle. “If your neighbour has low levels, it doesn’t mean that you have low levels.”

“We want our customers to feel confident and safe.”

How would a radon sensor in your home make you feel?