If you’ve been to any big city you’ve seen flocks of pigeons pecking for food in open air marketplaces, hanging out on rooftops and pooping all over statues. If you were in London March 14-16, you might have seen some flying around the city with tiny packs strapped to their backs. These are actually racing pigeons, part of the Pigeon Air Patrol, a project developed by Plume Labs to monitor air pollution in London.

Their tiny backpacks contain sensors that measure nitrogen dioxide, ozone and other pollutants, all of which unfortunately exist in abundance in London. The Pigeon Air Patrol tracks all that data, and if you tweet your location to @PigeonAir, you’ll get a real-time reading of air quality over your head so you can decide if you want to go for that jog or stay indoors—all thanks to those hard-working backpack-wearing pigeons!  It’s a pretty nifty use of request/reply interactions and a great way to generate awareness of an important social and environmental issue.

Pigeon Air Patrol is retired for now, but next on the agenda is a similar project using human volunteers. Plume Labs is seeking runners, cyclists and other active participants to wear their sensors to help build a live pollution map.

The next logical step is to flip the protocol from request/reply to publish/subscribe at regular intervals, with the pigeons or pedestrians sending streaming air quality data out continuously. Then we would have continuously updated 3D models of pollution levels city-wide, including inside buildings. Let’s just hope the pigeons and their poop stay outside.

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