Glowing Pollution Sensor Equipped Kites Replace Beijing's Stars

A scrappy citizen-science experiment to spark conversation (and action) around air quality.

Urban air quality in China has been miserable for years, but the issue really came to the foreground in June when China’s vice minister for environmental protection put foreign embassies on blast for publishing national air pollution data online. The U.S. Embassy, whose hourly Twitter updates on Beijing's air quality have helped spread awareness of the dangers of pollution among the Chinese public, was the likely target of the criticism.

With the Chinese government’s resistance to letting air quality information circulate freely, two graduate students from Carnegie Mellon and Harvard are taking things into their own hands: literally. Deren Guler and Xiaowei Wang are the creators of FLOAT Beijing, a grassroots project allowing urbanites to measure air quality with sensor-equipped handmade kites that identify pollutants by lighting up the night sky in a variety of colors.

FLOAT plans to kick off a series of workshops and kite flights beginning in August. Local residents will design and assemble their own air quality monitoring vessels, learn about the technology, and partake in a night time flight—a provocative display linking art, science, and environmental activism.

The technology attached to each kite includes a microcontroller with a range of sensors for VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) particles, natural gas, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter. An LED indicator will display color-coded detection levels that flash red, yellow, and blue (taking the place of the otherwise invisible stars). A GPS locator will also peg the information to Google Maps and Cosm, a website for real-time data storage. Because it’s unclear whether the data will be blocked from transmission in Beijing, a storage card will save the data for uploading later, if necessary.

“It’s citizen-science—that’s the main goal,” Guler says. “We’re trying to interact with people on the street and see what they’re trying to do with the information they see. I don’t plan to argue that this is the most accurate data because there are many potential reasons for differences in air quality reports. We want to just keep it up, upload the data, and focus on that more after we come back.”

The project has already received grants from The Awesome Foundation and the Black Rock Arts Foundation. In June they launched a Kickstarter with a $2,500 goal.

Photos courtesy of FLOAT Beijing

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