Flocks of pigeons patrolling London’s boroughs and streets are not a new sight, but Londoners don’t exactly hold the birds in high regard.
In the past, they have valiantly tried to banish the “rats with wings,” citing their mess and risk to community health. A former mayor even banned the public from feeding the birds in the popular tourist hot spot Trafalgar Square, hoping they’d flee for more fruitful territory. Alas, their efforts were futile, and the birds remained.
But now, pigeons are getting a moment for redemption. They’re helping Londoners understand and overcome one of the biggest health risks to the capital’s residents: air pollution. Each year, almost 9,500 Londoners die prematurely because the air they breathe is unhealthy and polluted. Many thousands more Britons die for the same reason.
In March, French tech firm Plume Labs launched a flock of 10 air-pollution monitoring pigeons into the city “because only in London would someone suggest with a straight face, ‘Why don’t we fly homing pigeons over the capital so they could tweet about the pollution they breathe?’” says Romain Lacombe, founder and chief executive of Plume Labs, a member of the Autodesk Entrepreneur Impact Program. The project, called Pigeon Air Patrol, took place over three days.
The birds’ collective job was to fly through the city and its boroughs while wearing air sensors, or “backpacks,” that took real-time measurements of air-pollution levels. Londoners could tweet @PigeonAir for an on-the-spot report of pollution levels in their postal code or borough. These levels took into account the nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and volatile compound levels in the area at the time of the Twitter request.
Plume Labs worked closely with a pigeon fancier and an aviary vet to ensure that the birds would be comfortable and able to reach optimal flight comfort while wearing the air sensors. Lacombe, whose team designed the backpacks using Autodesk Fusion 360, notes that finding that comfort level meant stripping away at the weight of the sensors so they would be—no pun intended—“featherlight.”
These avian allies against air pollution weren’t your typical street pigeons, however. Plume Labs used racing pigeons, which can reach top speeds between 60 and 80 miles per hour. The prized pigeons also live as long as 20 years whereas the average street pigeon lives only four.
To help humanize the effort (and hopefully draw more attention to the project), the team even created characters for its bird brigade, including Coco, Norbert, and Julius.
The idea for using pigeons to record and monitor air pollution came from Pierre Duquesnoy, who won a 2015 London Design Festival award for this idea. Duquesnoy approached Lacombe and Plume Labs to partner on the production and launch of the Pigeon Air Patrol. “Thousands and thousands of Londoners joined the flock and tweeted to our Pigeon Patrol account to track what they breathe in their own borough,” Lacombe says. And while that real-time reading was fascinating for the more than 25,000 Londoners who tweeted for air readings from the pigeons, the birds’ real purpose was to draw attention to air pollution in general.
Lacombe, who calls himself “an engineer and data scientist by training and environmentalist by trade,” studied applied math in France and carbon markets and technology policy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After leaving MIT, Lacombe returned to France to work with the French prime minister in shaping public policy that would make public data more readily available to startup companies.
“After several years inside government, I grew a sense of frustration with the mismatch between the efforts we deployed to make government more transparent and the relative scarcity of the data it collected,” Lacombe says. “Why was it that, as I trained for the Paris marathon in the streets of Paris, I couldn’t get a clear picture of what I breathe—and more importantly, how I could beat air pollution?”
That lack of clarity and inability to more easily understand his environment is what led Lacombe to leave his role in the French government and join the fight against global warming in a more meaningful way—by establishing Plume Labs.
“We’re working toward a world free of air pollution by empowering urbanites to track their exposure to pollution and learn what they can do to avoid it, thanks to our connected hardware devices and our context-aware app,” he says. Plume Labs believes that the more data is collected, the better informed global communities will be to make important decisions to fight climate change.
The Pigeon Air Patrol was the second phase in air-pollution awareness work Plume Labs has created. Its first, an app called Plume Air Report, allows users to have a read on their city’s air quality. Not all cities are on the app yet, but more than 300 municipalities around the world are, including U.S. locations such as New York City, Cleveland, Boise, Memphis, and St. Louis.
Thanks in large part to the Pigeon Air Patrol, Plume Labs recruited 100 volunteers in London who will carry out the next phase of the company’s work. Beginning this fall, these recruits will wear a prototype of the firm’s air-pollution-monitoring sensor for several weeks.
This experiment, a partnership between Plume Labs and Imperial College London, will help the firm track, monitor, and understand how crowdsourced pollution readings can help individuals understand what’s in the air they’re breathing, how it could be impacting their health, and what they should do to reduce their risks of pollution-related health risks.
“We’ve worked with Autodesk products to design and 3D print simple, lightweight, portable, personal sensor prototypes that our volunteers in London will carry for several weeks for a test at scale of how we could better measure what we all breathe around major cities,” Lacombe says. “This will help eventually make the amazing technologies we’ve built accessible to everyone. We feel that by making air-pollution data accessible to anyone, we’ll eventually revolutionize how we relate to our environment and its impact on our health—and we’ll help make our cities breathable again.”