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Pigeons Wearing Backpacks Are Helping Save London

The disrespected “rats with wings” are helping combat excessive pollution in the heart of Britain

In London, toy drones aren’t the oddest spectacle floating overhead. The keen eye may spy a pigeon with a backpack.

Ten technologically-enhanced birds are being used in a mini-experiment by a startup called Plume Labs, and its members—including researchers from MIT, Imperial College London and Stanford University—are dedicated to combating air pollution around the globe. While 150 stray dogs were once used to monitor pollution in Mexico City, the Plume Labs researchers told the Guardian that the Pigeon Air Patrol is the first case they know of using completely wild animals to track pollution.

The suited-up pigeons carry monitors that constantly track their location and measure pollutants in the surrounding air. As the pigeons go about their daily business of pecking, pooping and piloting the skies, the feather-light backpacks track levels of nitrogen dioxide from traffic, ozone from vehicles and industrial processes and volatile organic compounds from various chemicals—all of which are bad news for health. The birds’ movements are publicly available on a real-time map, and at one point Londoners could tweet their location to @PigeonAir and find out just how much noxious gas they were breathing in.

“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,” Pierre Duquesnoy, a creative director with the project, tells the Guardian. Duquesnoy calls air pollution “a scandal” both for humans and pigeons.

And a toxic atmosphere is certainly no joke. A 2015 study by King’s College in London assessed that airborne pollutants could have contributed to as many as 9,400 deaths in London in 2010 and the global figures, on the other hand, are enough to inspire gasmasks for all. The World Health Organization estimated in 2014 that seven million deaths a year can be linked to air pollution each year.

While existing air quality monitors installed in cities like London work well they, like most non-alive things, have the disadvantage of being stuck in one spot whereas people tend to be mobile, flitting around the city just like our feathered friends (or foes, depending on your view of pigeons). Hence the air patrol idea: Pigeons can gather data from multiple locations, providing a dynamic snapshot of how pollution changes from neighborhood A to B throughout the day, or how it varies from the grassy confines of Hyde Park to the road-lined banks of the River Thames, for example.

London’s human residents are invited to join the birds as canary-in-a-coal-mine pollution testers. Plume Labs is looking for 100 volunteers—including “cyclists, runners and pram pushers”—to strap sensors onto their gear of choice and find out what they’re breathing in as they make their way around the city. Unlike The Police’s creepy version of life, watching every breath you take in this particular case is actually a good thing. The data collected along the way will be for identifying pollution hotspots around the city.

As Duquesnoy says, he and his non-feathered colleagues aim to “make the invisible visible” with their project. The next challenge will be figuring out how to actually fix the problem.

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