Air pollution has long been a concern of Londoners and now the city’s pigeons are flying in to help. As reported by The Guardian, a flock of racing pigeons have been fitted with tiny backpacks containing air pollution sensors. The pigeons’ sensors detect the levels of nitrogen dioxide, ozone and volatile compounds which are then tweeted to anyone who asks for them.
The idea for the flying air pollution monitors came from Pierre Duquesnoy who, together with Matt Daniels, won first prize in the 2015 London Design Festival for the “pigeon air patrol” idea. According to The Guardian Duquesnoy got his inspiration from the carrier pigeons used to relay messages in World Wars I and II. The birds were a “practical way of taking mobile air quality readings and beating London’s congested roads” in a bid to raise public awareness of air pollution.
“It is a scandal. It is a health and environmental scandal for humans – and pigeons. We’re making the invisible visible…most of the time when we talk about pollution people think about Beijing or other places, but there are some days in the year when pollution was higher and more toxic in London than Beijing, that’s the reality.”
The pigeons are monitoring air pollution for three days from March 14, flying from Brian Woodhouse’s pigeon loft in Brick Lane, East London. So far, the reaction on Twitter has been enthusiastic; after all, Londoners and pigeons do have a close connection.
@PigeonAir this is both the wackiest and best idea I've heard in a while!— Dan Seamarks (@thedanseamarks) March 14, 2016
Up early to see London's first ever pollution monitoring pigeons take to the skies and Tweet. Hello @PigeonAir!????????????— Helen Lawrence (@helenium) March 14, 2016
According to the Evening Standard, Duquesnoy teamed up with Plume Labs, who monitor air pollution across the globe, to get his idea off the ground. Romain Lacombe, chief executive of Plume Labs, explained that he and Duquesnoy wanted to make air pollution monitoring helpful and interactive, rather than just dry facts.
“It’s one thing to create the best technology in the world but you need people to understand it. What’s been missing is an understandable way to access our personal exposure [to air pollution] and advice on what to do about what you’re breathing, Most people don’t know how much pollution changes day by day, but also hour by hour and even street by street.”
The @PigeonAir Twitter account does more than just tweet pollution levels, it also helpfully advises people to “avoid toxic smog.”
It even gives helpful (if somewhat depressing) facts about air pollution.
And it gets positively excited when a pigeon is flying in good, clean air.
Although London and its pigeons are virtually inseparable (and a novelty to tourists) residents have sometimes given feral pigeons a bum rap. However, Duquesnoy is keen to explain that the pigeon patrol are “professional pigeons,” not just the loiterers found outside eateries.
“They’re very quick racing pigeons, they can fly at 60-80 mph. They live up to 20 years, compared with a street pigeon’s life expectancy of about four years. They’re beautiful birds and far smarter than people think. So we’re turning something that people don’t like into something positive. And people have always used pigeons to communicate, but this is in a very modern way — with Twitter.”
Helen Lawrence, head of creative agency development at Twitter U.K., likes the idea of blending social media with the novel way of gathering data.
“This idea is perfect for Twitter because people tweet with their location and get real-time information back. It’s also fun and exciting and very different. I don’t think we ever expected to use Twitter for this.”
As pigeons are not nocturnal, the air pollution monitoring service is only operating during “flying” hours. Even pigeons need their rest after a hard day’s work.
The pigeons’ backpacks are adapted from those used for tourist treks in the United States, “they’re worn by pigeons trained to fly along canyons in Utah so that walkers can have photos of their trips ready for when they return.” After the three-day pigeon patrols are over, Duquesnoy hopes to move onto humans by recruiting people to wear the air pollution monitors.
[Photo by Ferdinand Ostrop/AP Images]