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Groundbreaking Kiwi AI Tech To Fight Vaping In Schools, Public Spaces

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. 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. 

“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. 

“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,” says Samiei. 

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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. 

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. 

“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. 

Piera's 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,” Seelam says.

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