London has an unusual new weapon in the fight against pollution: pigeons with backpacks. A new project called Pigeon Air Patrol is sending out birds strapped with tiny harnesses to fly across the U.K. capital during the next few days. Inside each backpack harness is an air quality sensor, and as the birds spread out across the city, Londoners can check the air quality readings relayed from each sensor by tweeting their location to the Pigeon Air Patrol Twitter account. An accompanying website also lets you track the birds’ progress across London, gauging pollutant levels wherever they take temporary roost.
The results may well prove interesting, but so far the most striking impression from the project is that the whole thing is kind of adorable. Here’s the moment when Pigeon Air Patrol’s pigeon fancier in residence releases some of his birds off an East London rooftop.
And here are the tiny backpacks laid out ready for the project’s avian collaborators, Daphne, Winston, Julius, Coco and Norbert. You needn’t be alarmed about these packs overburdening the birds. They weigh a mere 25 grams (0.88 ounces) each, while the vests themselves are apparently soft-fitting and stretchy.
Despite its obvious cute factor, the project, co-created by marketing and tech agency DigitasLBi and air quality tech developers Plume Labs, has a serious intent. It’s not that the pigeons necessarily deliver data of a sort that hasn’t as yet been available. It’s more that they catch people’s imagination and hopefully draw attention to a still under-exposed problem. Project developer Pierre Duquesnoy thought up the eye-catching idea because he was frustrated by Londoners’ general indifference to their city’s appalling air quality. As he told Citylab by telephone:
“There have been lots of headlines and conversations about air quality in London, but they’ve tended to be fairly scientifically slanted. Talking to many ordinary people, I realized that many of them didn’t realize how serious the issue was. It’s a major scandal but people don’t really seem to be that bothered. I think this is because despite its grave effects, it’s an invisible, essentially intangible problem.”
Dusquesnoy’s bleak view of Londoners’ pollution awareness is sadly justified. This year, the city only needed seven days to breach E.U. safe pollution limits set for the whole year, while air pollution causes the premature deaths of up to 12,000 Londoners annually. As the city’s Deputy Mayor for Transport Isabel Dedring noted at the Citylab 2015 conference in London last fall, a sense of public outrage over this problem still lags far behind the actual gravity of the situation. If the data relayed from these pigeons could in some small way help build momentum for change, it very well could save lives in the long run. There are also plans to extend the sensors from birds to humans. The project’s creators are currently crowdfunding to establish a citizen army of pollution monitors, who will wear their sensors and relay air quality information back to the website as they go about their daily business.
In the short-term, the sensor-laden birds face obstacles other that soupy, polluted air. As one tweeter noted yesterday, the skies of East London are sometimes beset by a menace equal to pollution, at least for pigeons—hawks employed professionally to keep their numbers under control, either by bringing them down or just scaring the wits out of them with their mere presence. So perhaps Pigeon Air Patrol might also have another effect: helping to shift the public image of pigeons from flying rats to airborne eco-warriors.