The Pigeon In the Coal Mine

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Aimed at "making the invisible visible" - thus raising awareness of air pollution levels that can rival Beijing's - a troupe of formerly unemployed, perennially maligned pigeons have finished a three-day trial flight of the newly created Pigeon Air Patrol, whereby the birds monitor air quality in London via teeny backpack sensors. The Patrol is the brainchild of Pierre Duquesnoy of the DigitasLBI marketing company, who won Twitter's #PoweredByTweets challenge last year, held in conjunction with the London Design Festival. Duquesnoy's goal was to publicize the "health and environmental scandal" of  London's pollution, which is estimated to kill almost 10,000 people a year. While the city has 120 stations monitoring air pollution, they are in fixed positions with inevitable blind spots. Inspired by the use of pigeons during the first and second world wars, Duquesnoy saw the birds, who can fly low and fast above clogged roads, as a practical and innovative way to provide mobile air quality readings.

The Patrol, whose first flights ended Wednesday, consists of a team of ten pigeons fitted with lightweight sensors attached to mesh backpacks, designed by Paris-based Plume Labs, that measure the levels of nitrogen dioxide and other toxic elements in London's air. The sensors can relay their findings to the to find out how toxic your air is?" ask the brightly colored birds on the Pigeon Air Patrol website. "Ask me. A pigeon." The site also offers splashy graphics, a London map tracking the pigeons' flight paths, conscientious assurances the birds are well-treated, have their own vet and are happy to make the flights - "They're pigeons" - and perky backstories of  team members like Coco the Maverick, Norbert the Intellectual, and Julius the Hipster. Looking ahead to other possibilities, DigitasLBI is crowdfunding wearable sensors for bikers, joggers and other humans to continue monitoring. For now, Duquesnoy is modestly pleased about “taking what is seen as a flying rat and reversing that into something quite positive.”

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