Want an air pollution reading? Go fly a kite

Kites inhabit so many niches within our lives. For some cultures in China and Afghanistan, flying a kite is an important historic tradition. In science, you might associate them with Benjamin Franklin’s bout with electricity. Still others use them for gravity-defying water sports, and some just find flying them to be a fun way to spend a windy afternoon.

In Beijing, they’re helping protect public health.

The city has experienced growing air pollution problems over the past few years as industrialization roars forward; who can forget the coverage of the smog problem during the Beijing Olympic Games? Now, residents are starting to get suspicious, seeing that United States Embassy in the city issues different pollution reports than the government. So how can the people get an accurate report?

Enter Deren Guler and Xiaowei Wang, two masters students with an idea. They’re marrying the Chinese kite tradition with new technology to let kite flyers monitor pollution levels themselves.

After raising $5000 on Kickstarter, Guler and Wang started their project Float Beijing, producing sensors that attach to the kites and measure carbon monoxide and other dangerous compounds in the air. LED lights on the sensors let the flyer know how much pollution is hanging over the city. The sensors also store the data for later review, so those interested can look for trends in the levels of pollution.

The students started workshops in Beijing, showing residents how to attach and use the sensors. According to the students, kite makers and enthusiasts are embracing the new project.

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