Thursday, July 23, 2015

Pigeon Pi

By day, Robert Threet is a systems manager at the University of  Southern Indiana in Evansville. But when he’s not knee-deep in network hardware, he races homing pigeons.

Credit: Robert Threet

Credit: Robert Threet

Pigeon racing, which I’d always thought was the preserve of people from the north of England with flat caps and whippets (calm yourselves, commenters: my granddad was a man from the north of England with a flat cap – no whippets – and his friends were all over this stuff; budgie shows, too) turns out to have a following in the USA as well.

Things are far more sophisticated than they were when I was a kid. Back in the 70s when my Granddad’s friends were racing, each pigeon carried a little removable rubber ring around its ankle matching the unique number on a permanent band fitted when the pigeon was a chick. The rubber band was collected manually and logged when the pigeon arrived back at its loft by placing it in a special compartment in a pigeon clock, which stamped a piece of paper with the time. I was never allowed to touch one of these endlessly fascinating pigeon clocks, and they’ve always been objects of mystery – I was really chuffed when researching this post to find that a giant database of the things exists.

1955 Jundes pigeon clock. Click image to view at the Pigeon Clock Museum.

1955 Jundes pigeon clock. Click image to view at the Pigeon Clock Museum.

Nowadays, the pigeons are kitted out with RFID tags, and counted in by an electronic clock.  The pigeons race over distances between 300 and 500 miles, depending on age and experience. Pigeons belonging to a number of different racers all start at the same location, and fly back to their home lofts. The lofts’ GPS coordinates are taken, and used to calculate the distance flown. The pigeon with the best yards-per-minute score overall wins the race.

What does this have to do with Robert Threet in Indiana? Robert has been using a Raspberry Pi to augment the pigeon experience. Whenever one of his own pigeons arrives back in the loft after a race, a Raspberry Pi (which he also uses to monitor weather and the temperature conditions in the loft) uses a motion detector to trigger a camera, so each bird gets a photo-finish.

Robert plans to set the Pi up to automatically tweet those pictures, but for now, there’s a problem: his WiFi doesn’t extend to the pigeon loft. Please drop us a line when your setup is tweeting, Robert (as opposed to cooing softly); we’d love to be able to watch what your pigeons are doing.

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