Pigeon Power: The Future of Air Pollution Monitoring in a Tiny Backpack?

New, wearable technology could transform pollution and health monitoring around environmental disasters.

Plume Labs and DigitasLBi enlisted pigeons to monitor air pollution in London
Racing pigeons wore little backpacks with air monitoring equipment in a test run in London. Credit: DigitasLBi

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A flock of specially trained, backpack-wearing racing pigeons conducted sorties over London last week in a novel air pollution monitoring campaign.

Though the event was largely a publicity stunt, the lightweight monitoring devices worn by the birds could transform how humans track their own exposure to a variety of airborne toxins.

“The idea is to raise awareness of pollution that is interactive and easily accessible and that strikes the mind enough to create mass awareness of the topic of air pollution,” said Romain Lacombe, chief executive of Plume Labs, the air monitoring technology company behind last week’s flights.

“Most people are very familiar with what is at stake to reduce CO2 emissions, but there seems to be much less of an understanding of how bad polluting emissions are for our health and the staggering size of the public health issue.”

Over three days, The Pigeon Air Patrol, a flock of 10 birds trained for racing, flew point-to-point over the city. Two of the birds carried sensors that measured the concentration of nitrogen dioxide and ozone, two main gases that make urban air pollution so toxic. A third pigeon recorded the flock’s location with a small GPS device. Members of the public were able to track the birds on the Pigeon Air Patrol website and get pollution readings from their monitors by tweeting @PigeonAir.

Pigeons were used to monitor nitrous dioxide in London

Plume Labs and collaborators DigitasLBi, a marketing and technology company, and social media company Twitter will now work with researchers at Imperial College in London to test similar monitors on 100 people throughout the city. Data from the devices, which will monitor levels of volatile organic compounds as well as nitrogen dioxide and ozone, could be a boon to health researchers by allowing them to track individuals’ exposure over a given period of time as they move about the city.

“Having that ability to be able to monitor easily, cheaply, in a way that doesn’t require a lot of involvement either from the researcher or from the participant in these studies is just a complete game changer for epidemiology,” said collaborator Audrey de Nazelle, a lecturer in air pollution management at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College.

Current air monitoring by government agencies typically relies on fixed stations that do not include indoor air monitoring where people spend the majority of their time.

If successful, the devices, each of which will cost roughly $150 and clip onto clothing or other accessories, could allow concerned individuals or groups to conduct their own air quality measurements. Future sensors could potentially also measure for other pollutants such as carbon dioxide, methane and benzene, a known carcinogen that is toxic even at low doses.

Pollution-tracking pigeons in London
Pigeons were equipped with tiny air monitoring equipment in a test run over London. Credit: DigitasLBi

Residents in Los Angeles County for example, continue to suffer adverse health effects from a recent natural gas leak, the largest in US history. Individual air monitoring during and after the event could have provided a clearer picture of residents’ exposure to potentially harmful gases. Health officials have yet to conduct indoor air monitoring in homes near the leak and are unable to explain the cause of ongoing illnesses that have occurred since residents returned to their homes.

Often when oil pipeline spills and related incidents occur, air monitoring in affected communities begins too late to determine what people were initially exposed to, and how much. Crude oil contains hundreds of chemicals, including benzene.

Plume Labs executives say the mobile air monitors could augment the company’s air quality forecasts that it currently offers based on government sources for 300 cities around the world.

“There is a lot governments can do to be more transparent about the environment, but they are also limited by the amount of data they can gather,” Lacombe said. “Using distributed sensors we can hopefully provide an even more high fidelity image.”