Thursday, August 17, 2006

Spy Pigeons-- the Good, the Bad, and...

Reid sent me a link to this fascinating LAT story about homing pigeons being used for remote monitoring of pollution.

"Pigeons wearing tiny backpacks and cellphones will roam the skies of Northern California this weekend as part of an unusual art project.

"Equipped with miniature smog sensors, the birds will transmit air pollution data to a "pigeon blog" website.

"Beatriz da Costa, an assistant professor of arts, computation and engineering at UC Irvine, brainstormed the idea as a playful way to get people thinking about the health hazards of smog."


"Da Costa's entry was inspired by a century-old photo of a homing pigeon wearing a "tiny spy camera". The birds have a long history of military service — and some received medals for their World War II heroics.

"Now, pigeons have entered the Digital Age. Da Costa and two graduate students spent a year developing bird-sized cellphones, GPS tracking devices and air pollution monitors. (Sorry, still no sign of a pigeon iPod.)

"The featherweight gadgetry fits inside a spandex backpack originally designed by a Colorado river-rafting company that employs pigeons to carry rolls of film back to civilization during wilderness tours."

(Steve here: I knew a guy who used to work for them. He said a message took three pigeons because of the ubiquitous Peregrines there: "One for the falcon, one for the tiercel, and one for the film".)

"Each smog-sniffing backpack weighs less than a 10th of a pigeon's body weight and costs $250, Da Costa said."

Tim Gallagher gives us a link to the site.

You would think that this would be a story about something good for everyone-- scientists, kids, abatement of pollution, happy flying pigeons. You would be wrong.

"The use of bird backpacks has drawn fire from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"In a letter to UCI Chancellor Michael V. Drake last week, PETA said the "heavy and cumbersome equipment" strapped to Da Costa's racing pigeons could cause "injury and exhaustion for the birds."

"Da Costa said she was bewildered by PETA's rebuke. "PETA is doing important work, but they should focus on people who really are abusing animals," she said. Complaints about pigeon backpacks are why the group "is not taken very seriously anymore," she said.

"Bird experts at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology also said the protest seemed overblown. "Racing pigeons are high-performance athletes that can almost certainly sustain this additional load with no harm," lab spokeswoman Patricia Leonard said."

Poor Da Costa. Welcome to the world of AR.

Oh and-- if you want to learn more about birds and spy technology, Croatian reader Mario Profaca has rounded up quite a bit here. And Pluvialis has written about the falcon side in this book.

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