This weekend, pigeons wearing tiny backpacks will roam the skies over Northern California. It’s not a manifestation of pet personhood, it’s a science project. The backpacks, equipped with smog sensors, GPS and a cell phone, gather air pollution data during the flight which is submitted – in real time – to the PigeonBlog website.
As the pigeons fly about, the sensors gather information on oxdizing gases, such as Nitrogen Oxides and Volatile Organic Compounds, as well as reducing gases, such as Carbon Monoxide, Carbon Dioxide and Hydrocarbons. On the MAP section of PigeonBlog you can follow both the sensory readings and the flying trajectory superimposed onto a satellite map of the area the pigeons fly over. The site also provides information about the composition of our air, common pollutants and their known health effects as well as the EPA’s Air Quality Index and the current state of air pollution in the United States today.
The real scientist behind the project is Beatriz da Costa who is an Assistant Professor of Arts, Computation and Engineering at the University of California, Irvine. She brainstormed the idea as a playful way to get people thinking about the health hazards of smog and as an alternative way to participate in environmental air pollution data gathering.
Da Costa's entry was inspired by a century-old photo of a homing pigeon wearing a tiny spy camera designed by the German engineer Julius Neubronner. She and her team of two graduate students spent a year developing the bird sized packs that weigh a tenth of a pigeons body weight and cost about $250 each. The airborne expedition is part of ZeroOne San Jose, a weeklong showcase of technology and art.