Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Pigeons With Camera Phones. Is Anyone Safe?

Smile. Look at the Birdie. Ohhh. What just hit me in the eye? I've been faked out by a camera phone toting pigeon. Worse, while I'm reaching for a handkerchief to clean the "fallout" from my eye, that little birdbrain is sending my picture to its blog so everyone can enjoy my humiliation.

Well, it's not like we weren't warned. Alfred Hitchcock had the drop on the agenda of these birds even before most of us were getting dropped on. His prophetic conspiracy theory formed the basis of the 1963 movie "The Birds." Sea gulls, pigeons... you've got to keep an eye on all of them. Just not from underneath.

OK, perhaps this is getting a little carried away. After all, the pigeons I'm referring to were actually recruited for a scientific project to study pollution over San Jose. Rather than just send the pigeons out over the city and see how much they cough when they get back, researcher Beatriz da Costa is loading up the birds with electronic backpacks. You've seen the World War II movies where one soldier has a giant radio set strapped to his back? That's about the scale of it. Except these are pigeons. Also, technology has advanced enough in the last 65 years so that you can fit a lot of electronic capability in a pack small enough to be lofted by a medium size bird.

Beatriz da Costa is a researcher and Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California at Irvine. She and two of her students, Cina Hazegh and Kevin Ponto, came up with the bird "brain" idea of turning pigeons into miniature U2 spy planes and flying them over San Jose. Each bird will carry an electronic pack that contains a cell phone, GPS receiver, carbon monoxide & nitrogen dioxide sensors, plus a digital camera slung around their neck.

The way it will work is that 20 of these pigeons will cruise the skies over San Jose, California carrying their electronic packs. Apparently they do know the way to San Jose. While in flight, the air quality sensors will automatically transmit pollution levels as text messages to a blog in real time. The blog will be in the form of an interactive map. Since the data telemetry from pigeon pack to Internet blog is all automated, the birds are expected to have time to snap aerial pictures using the cameras slung around their necks. Those photos will also be messaged and posted to the birdy blog.

Is this for real? Seems so. The experiment was published online in New Scientist under the title of "Pigeons to set up a smog blog." The wireless winged armada is to be released at the Inter-Society for Electronics Arts annual symposium in San Jose this August 5.

According to New Scientist, researcher da Costa is hoping that one of the outcomes of this bold experiment is that it will inspire others to invent new ways of monitoring the environment. It's a noble goal, perhaps even a Nobel goal, but I can also see some opportunity for mischief if the birds decide to have a little fun with the project.

"Hey Polly, plop that guy on the bike and I'll get your picture for the blog."

"Scooter, those people on the roof don't have any feathers on. Let's make a centerfold for today's postings."

Things may also get out of hand if the experiment is successful and duplicated nationwide or even worldwide. Privacy? Ha! You can kiss that old fashioned notion goodbye. That bird on the power line is snapping your picture right now. His sensitive chemical sensors can smell the beer on your breath and he's blogging on it as we speak. There's no place to hide. Every branch has a stool pigeon. Skip a day filling the bird feeder and .... Wait. Why are all those birds landing on the roof? Are they setting up their own ad-hoc wireless network? Why are they all looking this way? OK. Very slowly now, let's make our way from the school to home. Whatever you do don't make any quick moves and don't laugh at their ringtones. They hate that.

Like I said before. We've already been warned.

Follow Telexplainer on Twitter