They’re rats with wings! And sensors. Ten pigeons carrying lightweight pollution sensors in specially designed backpacks will provide live air-quality updates from the skies over London for the next three days.
Pigeon Air Patrol was one of the winners of a competition called #PoweredByTweets launched by Twitter last year. It’s a PR stunt, but it highlights an important development – air-pollution sensors so small that they can be attached to a bird in flight. The sensors were developed by Plume Labs, which provides pollution readings via a smartphone app.
The sensors measure nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone concentrations. I asked the pigeons for a reading for Holborn, where the offices of New Scientist are located. “High pollution in #Holborn,” came the instant reply. “Avoid toxic smog.”
The tweet provided a link to the Pigeon Air Patrol website, which advised: “If you’re cycling wear a mask. If you’re jogging avoid main roads. If you’re flying wear anti-fog goggles.”
Call for volunteers
With just ten pigeons, the coverage is too small to provide a reliable pollution map of the whole city, admits Romain Lacombe, CEO of Plume Labs. But he hopes the stunt will bring in volunteers to wear the lightweight sensors to provide data for research his team is planning to conduct with Imperial College London.
Although current pollution maps can only give information about general areas, adding more sensors like those of Plume Labs would help enable monitoring on a street-by-street basis.
Last year, research by King’s College London found that the equivalent of up to 9500 people die early each year in London because of long-term exposure to air pollution, especially from NO2 and fine particulates. The UK has been in breach of the European Union’s NO2 pollution limits for five years, and is not expected to comply before 2025.
“I think the pigeons are a great idea because they’re a new way of engaging people in a really important topic,” says Simon Birkett, director of the campaign group Clean Air in London.
Birkett points out that London’s NO2 levels are the highest in the world, according to another report by King’s College. “Something needs to be done about it. The obvious thing is to ban diesel as we banned coal so successfully 60 years ago.”