August 12, 2006

Pigeons Beam Air Quality Info to Blog

SAN FRANCISCO -- Pigeons with backpacks and cell phones will be taking to the sky and sending air quality data to a blog as part of a whimsical project that blends science, art and activism.

Investigators at the University of California, Irvine hope the winged researchers will fill in gaps in knowledge about the air we breathe, and bring nonscientists into the debate on air quality.

"They transmit in real time, and all the information is available to the public," said Beatriz da Costa, a UC Irvine professor of arts, computation and engineering.

The pigeons will fly over Silicon Valley Saturday as part as ZeroOne San Jose, a technology and art exhibit.

Da Costa said the project was inspired both by the haze she saw hovering over Los Angeles when she moved to the city three years ago, and by a century-old photo of a pigeon carrying a spy camera around its neck.

"They were heavily used in World War II by several European countries," da Costa said of homing pigeons. "So I started thinking, what could we surveil right now that would be in the social interest?"

The birds will carry miniature backpacks equipped with a global positioning system monitor, pollution sensors, and cell phone transmitting equipment that can send the data directly to a blog where it is overlaid on Google maps. Visitors then can roll over the maps and learn about air pollution in the area.

It took da Costa and two graduate students working with her a year to develop equipment that is small and light enough, at 1.3 ounces, for the one-pound birds to carry.

Still, the project has drawn opposition from animal rights advocates, who questioned its scientific validity in a letter to UC Irvine's chancellor last week, saying the experiment could "result in injury and exhaustion for the birds."

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District already monitors air pollution at 28 different stations, and the data gathered by pigeons would be redundant, said Holly Mattern, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"It's an experiment with animals that is unnecessary," Mattern said. "It just shows bad decision-making on a lot of people's parts."

UC Irvine's animal ethics panel reviewed the project, and found it was harmless.

"It's not that they don't feel it at all, but they're capable of carrying it," da Costa said of the pigeons. "They're trained to do it, and the worst that can happen is that they fly, then take a rest."

The birds fly for about half an hour at between 300 and 500 feet. Their value to air quality researchers comes from their mobility, since they could potentially fill in pollution information between the stationary monitors researchers have to rely on, investigators said.

"This is about raising awareness, and rethinking the way we gather data," da Costa said. "In this case, we're doing it in a fun way, using homing pigeons."


On the Net: