Backpack-bearing pigeons are patrolling London, England’s air, reporting its pollution levels which are among the highest in the world. King’s College London reported in 2015 that annually almost 9,500 Londonese die prematurely from long-term exposure to the polluted air.
In the Pigeon Air Patrol a team of 10 trained pigeons at any one time fly with 25-gram sensors inside fabric vests on their backs. The harmful emissions are recorded. London residents who need to know if the air is safe to go outside can tweet @PigeonAir and get a “tweeted” readings reply. The pigeons have names like Norber, Coco and Julius. One will also wear a GPS tracking device and a veterinarian will monitor the health of the birds for three days of flights.
Plume Labs created the tiny, hi-tech backpacks for air quality monitoring of ozone, volatile compounds and nitrogen dioxide levels. Classifications range from “fresh” to “extreme” and their researchers help the pigeons in the tweeting process. The company also sought 100 human recruits willing to carry portable sensors to build the live air quality map of London from the ground. They raised more than the £10,000 they needed for the project through crowdfunding.
For people with asthmatic and other breathing issues, joggers and bikers, the reports can be lifesaving. On the Plume Labs website, click on the major cities on the world map for valuable information like the air classification for the day; the percentage of the main pollutants of nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, or particulate matters; the annual average quality index for the city; and the number of days in the year that have been at the current pollution level. For example, in the
United States on March 30, 2016 many cities such as Washington, D.C., NYC, Jacksonville, FL, Louisville, KY, and Salt Lake City all have a “moderate” rating. Beijing, China is “very high” and the site warns it “can cause adverse health effects, even with short exposures. A free app called ‘Plume Air Report” is available to download on a smart phone for a daily report of what is in the air and how to protect the body from it.
A “fresh” classification means air pollution is low and air is safe to breathe, “moderate” is a little more polluted and risky for human lungs for extended time, “high” means it is above World Health Organization’s recommendations so avoid jogging on main roads and wear a mask if cycling. Being outside for even a short time in “very high” might be harmful, so do not exercise at those times. “Extreme” means levels are critical for humans, dogs, cats and the pigeons so they should stay indoors.
Original designers of the Pigeon Air Patrol were Pierre Duquesnoy and Matt Daniels with the international marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi. They won the “Solve a Problem” category in Twitter’s 2015 #PoweredByTweets competition.
People breathe about 20 kilograms (about 44 pounds) of air every day. Roughly 7 million people die globally from pollution-related deaths according to a 2014 World Health Organization report. Plume Labs CEO Romain Lacombe told CNN that “it’s basically a pandemic, but we have a hard time realizing this because it’s largely invisible.” Residents hardly notice pigeons any more than invisible air pollution particles, but the birds wearing rucksacks will likely get more looks.
It is nice to find a worthy purpose for pigeons which are often held in contempt, but this job is similar to that of the canary in the coal mines. Conditions the birds are reporting to people can be hazardous to their own health. London visitors should go indoors immediately upon spotting several dead pigeons, whether bearing backpacks or not.