Most urban dwellers think of pigeons as a nuisance, but it turns out they might be useful in the fight against air pollution. In what seems like an unlikely alliance among Twitter, a hobbyist pigeon racer, and Plume Labs, creator of an air-pollution reporting smartphone app, a team of 10 backpack-wearing pigeons are flying over London for three days and sending back reports via the Internet as to what they're finding. These results will be, um, tweeted to anyone who wants them--just tweet your location in London to @PigeonAir and the system will automatically tweet back the readings where you are. Specifically, the Pigeon Air Patrol program is measuring nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and volatile organic compounds.

 inline image

Why London? It has the sad distinction of being the most polluted city in Europe, with nearly 10,000 people each year dying as a result of the toxic air. (Globally, that number is about seven million.)

OK, but what good will it do to measure the air for only three days? At least for now, the main objective is to raise awareness about air pollution in London. The idea is also to recruit more volunteers to wear Plume's pollution sensors, thus crowdsourcing information about just how polluted the city is and how pollution levels vary in different areas. Plume also has a crowdfunding campaign underway, looking to raise £10,000 (around $14,000) to pay for that effort. The pigeon initiative is the brainchild of digital marketing agency DigitasLBi, and won the "Solve a Problem" category in Twitters #PoweredByTwitter competition last year.

Could backpack-wearing pigeons monitoring air quality and other items become a useful technology in itself? Unknown. But in case you're worried about the effect this has on the pigeons, don't be. They're well-cared for racing pigeons wearing well-fitting backpacks that weigh only 25 grams apiece. And, as the Pigeon Air Patrol video notes, "After their celebrity Twitter days, they'll be back to normal life."