Pigeon Air Patrol measures London air pollution

The birds wear backpacks with sensors to tweet local air quality reports.

London has begun taking its air quality quite seriously. The situation is, after all, quite serious. The city's serious emission problems are responsible for premature deaths, and hit people with respiratory illnesses extra hard. London Mayor Boris Johnson is aware of the problem, and has been advocating for an Ultra Low Emissions Zone in the city center, a plan set to go into place in 2020. In hopes to understand the problem better, London monitors air quality at sites throughout the city. The problem is that these fixed sites measure air in the immediate vicinity, leaving blind spots where there isn't sufficient data about local air pollution.

Enter the Pigeon Air Patrol, a flock of winged warriors equipped with tiny backpacks that can measure pollution in places where fixed instruments can't. Powered in part by Twitter, London residents can tweet their location, and the Pigeons will deploy to the area to measure the local air quality. The birds' lightweight suite of sensors detects ozone, NO2, and other volatile compounds. The Pigeon Air Patrol project is a three-day trial to raise awareness about the city's invisible pollution problem, with the hopes of encouraging citizens to do their part to improve air quality, including changing their driving habits.

Deploying birds to measure toxic air serves a few functions. It gets people involved, by requesting measurements where they live and work. It provides environmental information in a way laymen can relate, rather than distancing the public with technical science-speak. Also, even though these aren't the same pigeons that Londoners are used to seeing pecking around their streets - these are well-cared-for racing pigeons that live up to 20 years - it helps change people's minds about them. "We're turning something that people don't like into something positive," Pierre Duquesnoy, the project's creator tells the Evening Standard.

The Pigeon Air Patrol project is operated in partnership with Plume Labs, a tech company that provides local air quality forecasts. After the three-day pigeon trial, the tech company hopes to equip humans with sensors, so they can measure air quality as they walk, run, or bike around London. And, since the equipment is light enough to be carried across town by a pigeon, they're comfortable enough to be worn by a human. Hopefully, after seeing the pigeons at work, and by interacting with the project through social media, more Londoners will understand the issue better and have a hand in making their city a healthier place to live. Seriously.

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