Pigeons don’t get a lot of love in general. Considered to be the rats of the sky, they’re blamed for disease, annoyances, and a whole lot of poop on your parked cards.
However, one group of researchers in the UK are putting the birds to good use in gathering climate data.
Researchers at the University of Birmingham in have built tiny backpacks they intend to strap onto pigeons before letting them loose. It’s not just a weird way of dressing up the birds for photos or anything though. The backpacks are actually tiny bundles of sensors that can help gather data on climate factors in urban environments.
Specifically, research leader Rick Thomas says, the pigeons will help them gather block-by-block variations in temperature, humidity, wind conditions, and pollution, across major cities in the UK.
Of course, he says a lot of naysayers ask him why he just doesn’t use drones, but Thomas has a good reason. “You can’t fly drones up there. But birds-they fly everywhere,” he says. They would need more money for autonomous drones, or pilots for manually flown ones, not to mention a tonne of replaceable batteries to get data over any reasonable amount of time. Then there’s also the fact they would probably also need special permissions from local law enforcement.
The best part is, the scientists don’t even need to hunt for their own pigeons. Instead, they’re working with local volunteers that raise their own homing pigeons, which are bred and trained learn how to fly home by themselves.
But by using pigeons, they can just attach the backpacks and then forget about them.
Thanks to that detail, the sensors don’t even need to be wireless-capable in order to transfer data to the team. All they need to do is download the data whenever the pigeons return home, and then reattach the backpacks when they’re done.
The research team have also ensured that the work they’re making the pigeons do is humane and not harmful to them. The backpacks weigh less than three percent of each pigeon’s body weight, which doesn’t inconvenience them at all. Additionally, Thomas says his wife has stitched harnesses for the birds, in order to attach the sensors without pricking the birds themselves in any way.
“If [the pigeon owners] are not happy with any aspect of putting the sensors on their back, then they don’t have to fly their birds,” said Thomas. “The welfare of the birds is utterly paramount.”
So far, the study has already logged 41 flights between the five participating pigeons, covering a total of close to 1,000 kilometres. They’re in fact looking to expand the study to other cities, but are having trouble locating more trained pigeons.
According to the team, the study could help them understand how pollution spreads in an urban environment. They believe this could help local governments make decisions about pollution control, as well as where certain facilities like hospitals should not be built.
Well, if they’re going to poop on everything from up in the sky, they may as well work for the privilege.