Bird's Eye View of Air Quality

As reported in New Scientist, Beatriz da Costa of the University of California at Irvine, and two students, Cina Hazegh and Kevin Ponto, plan to launch a 20 pigeon brigade to monitor air quality over San Jose, California, this summer. This one's got a lot of angles, and we like them all...

First, there's the hack: rig a common cell phone circuit board with an air sensor and GPS and scale it down to the size of a pigeon back-pack. This device will dial down real-time data to the researchers. The homing pigeons will be fitted with cameras as well. With a payload of about 40 grams (1.5 ounces), the real challenge of the project is in the technology. Although the data in this particular experiment may not be of much added value for modelling air quality, and the bird-level data is not relevant for humans breathing at ground-level, the UCI air pollution research laboratory has shown interest in the technology being tested.

Second, there's the blog. An interactive map of the air quality data and aerial photos will be posted to a blog. Da Costa is looking for sponsors to help support the costs of making the data available in real time. Two calls a minute at 10 cents per phone call, it's not birdfeed.

Finally, we commend da Costa's vision. She proves that being a professor of art, electrical engineering and computer science is not a contradiction in terms. As usual, the definition of art is elusive. The angle here is a medium which gives scientists and non-scientists alike the opportunity to appreciate the complexities and beauties of science in a philosophical and engaging manner. And it must be art, because the data will send a powerful message: Finally the birds have a chance to tell us what humans are doing to their air.

Now merely an announcement, the blog will get rolling August 5-13, 2006 when the pigeons are released several times daily from the Symposium for the Electronic Arts; the website can be found at
Pigeon blog Follow other projects by Da Costa at her web page Beatriz da Costa.

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