Pigeon advocates now have another reason to protect them. It turns out that these birds, which are often defamed, could be the cutting edge tool for scientists to combat air pollution and climate change.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom have developed small sensors that can be attached to the backs of pigeons. Rick Thomas, the researcher who leads the project, uses birds to collect data on urban microclimates, the variations in temperature, humidity and wind of each zone in large cities that affect living conditions.
“Many people say, ‘And why do not you use a drone?’ Says Thomas. However, drones have caused several problems in the UK lately . “You can not fly drones up there. But birds can fly everywhere. “
Fortunately for scientists, they have not needed to look for their own pigeons. The project works with local volunteers who breed carrier pigeons, a pigeon variety that was selectively bred for its ability to return home.
When the birds return home, the sensors are removed and the data is downloaded. Each bird’s backpack collects data on temperature, humidity, ambient light, as well as location (GPS) and air pressure.
When designing the sensors, the team followed strict general guidelines to ensure that they do not cause harm to the pigeons. The backpack makes up less than 3% of the body weight of the pigeon, which is standard when using animals and scientific equipment. Thomas’ wife, Cat Thomas, designed and sewed the harness that holds the sensors on the backs of the birds. Cat Thomas made several designs before producing the best one for pigeons.
“If [the owners of the pigeons] are not happy with any aspect [of the harness], then they do not have to fly their birds,” Thomas said. “The welfare of the birds is very important.”
To date, the five birds in the project have made 41 flights and traveled almost 1,000 kilometers. An expansion of the project to other cities would require more volunteers with pigeons, and more money.
“[Farming] is not as popular as it was in the past, which is a shame,” said Thomas.
Each backpack with sensors costs approximately $ 250, a low-cost solution to acquire data in hard-to-reach places. Although Thomas is still working on solving calibration problems for some of the sensors, he is sure that the temperature measurements are accurate. This last was the aspect of the project in which he worked most in perfecting.
The data collected by pigeons can help researchers predict how air pollution spreads in cities, which is useful information when making decisions about where to build important infrastructures such as hospitals or schools.
Identifying problematic sites can also help public authorities create policies to better adapt to climate change as our cities continue to heat up. The continuous development of sensors, such as gas sensors, could provide scientists and political actors with information about air pollutants.
In the future, Thomas hopes to develop a sensor with self-sufficient energy, which would allow him to use wild birds. Adding solar panels could make the backpack too heavy for a small pigeon, so you’re thinking about using gulls.
Using wild birds, however, would require that the backpacks could transmit the collected data. Thomas already has a solution for that. He’s thinking of using the open wi-fi sites where birds congregate.
Therefore, if you see a bird with a backpack flying next time you visit the United Kingdom, do not be alarmed. He is just doing his job.