Pigeon Air Patrol to the rescue! Birds with backpacks track air pollution

The Pigeon Air Patrol measures nitrogen dioxide in London, which has a high level of air pollution.

Story highlights

  • Pigeons strapped with sensors are monitoring air pollution in London
  • Almost 9,500 people die from long-term air pollution in city annually, report says

(CNN)It could seem like a bird-brained idea: relying on a team of pigeons to carry out scientific studies on air quality.

But chances are, you've never seen a squad of pigeons wear backpacks quite like this.
    Meet London's Pigeon Air Patrol, a flock of "superbirds" measuring nitrogen dioxide in a city with some of the highest levels of air pollution in the world.
    Almost 9,500 people in the English capital die prematurely each year due to long-term exposure to polluted air, according to a report last year by King's College London.
    Globally, the number of air pollution-related deaths is closer to 7 million, a 2014 World Health Organization report said.
    Now a team of 10 trained pigeons is taking to the skies strapped with 25-gram sensors to measure the harmful emissions not always visible to the naked eye -- and, rather aptly, are tweeting the results.
    Londoners can ask their feathered friends to track nitrogen dioxide levels in their area by tweeting @PigeonAir. The clever creatures, with a little help from researchers at Plume Labs, will then tweet back their readings, ranging from "moderate" to "extreme."
    One of the pigeons -- which have names such as Norber, Coco and Julius -- will also be strapped with a GPS tracking device. A vet will be on hand to monitor the birds' well-being over three days of flights.
    The winged patrol was originally dreamed up by Pierre Duquesnoy and Matt Daniels of marketing agency DigitasLBi as part of Twitter's #PoweredByTweets competition last year, winning the "Solve a Problem" category.
    The patrol aims to boost a much larger campaign by Plume Labs to recruit 100 Londoners to carry out their own pollution monitoring -- though this one will be on the ground.
    The company has developed a portable sensor that participants will use to track emissions, building a live map of air quality across London.
    To get the campaign literally off the ground, Plume Labs still needs to raise £10,000 ($14,000), and has so far raised half its target.
    "Millions of people die every year around the world from air pollution -- it's basically a pandemic, but we have a hard time realizing this because