Homing Pigeon Email


Yes, you read that correctly: electronic mail carried by birds. [Ferdinand] tipped us off to this story, which involves combining new and old methods in transferring data. The Unlimited Group, a firm in a remote section of South Africa, transfers loads of encrypted documents to a second office 50 miles away. A pricey broadband connection would take between 6 hours and two days to transfer a standard load (4GB) of data between these locations. On the other hand, Winston (seen above) can complete an equivalent flight within 45 minutes. A memory card is strapped to his leg, and using his wit and instinct, Winston finds his way home. For those without their calculators on hand, Winston’s bandwidth is between 7x and 63x faster than what they had before. If his flash card were to be upgraded to 16GB, that would be an instant fourfold increase on top of current gains. As [Mark] pointed out on the Daily Mail website, homing pigeons still need to be taken back to their departure point.

This solution still has its advantages over a courier: they are lower in cost, they work over longer hours, and have potentially faster delivery speeds. Multiple pigeons can be transported back at once, and released with data as needed.

49 thoughts on “Homing Pigeon Email

  1. A strange thought occurs to me. If I am not mistaken, in the quantum world, as in the “pigeon world”, you have to prepare to send a message my dragging along a “messenger”. In the quantum world that would be entangled particles of some sort. Further, once used, the the entangled particles are useless. Much like a pigeon who is already home. It’s like they are metaphors of each other. Weird.

  2. stupid comparison
    let a truck full of bd-disks carry data to somewhere and it will be much faster than the fastest connection
    and pigeons are not very secure, one shotgun and all your data is in enemy’s hands
    they also not calculatet the costs and efforts to bring the pigeons back, feed them and so on

  3. @ Kiwisaft,
    If you have seen any of the other numerous post {1} online about this particualr bird, the local Telco chalanged their bird to the race to see which was faster. The telco failed to transfer the entire file, and not only that but when using the rate at which the file was transferring before it quit the pidgin won by a large amount. I’m assuming that any file that needed to be secured was, by some sort of encryption. The bird seems to be a good solution for them. I could also see it working in places that would be hard to string cable into, and are probably easier to deal with than a generator and fuel for some remote adventure. I have also seen mention that there is a tour guide company using something similar to get SD cards from their cameras out of the Grand Canyon. They mentioned that they do occasionally lose a few photos to hacks and such

    [1] http://idle.slashdot.org/story/09/09/10/0318203/Pigeon-Turns-Out-To-Be-Faster-Than-S-African-Net

  4. 50 miles in 45 minutes?

    Pigeons really fly faster than 60 MPH? That’s hard to believe. Let’s check the usual sources…

    Wikipedia states: “Their average flying speed over moderate distances is around 48 km/h (30 mph),[citation needed] but speeds of up to 95 km/h (59 mph) have been observed.”

    Alright, so maybe 66.6 MPH is possible.

    Now to get a homing pigeon to go the other way to take the first pigeon back.

  5. I live in South Africa and would just like to add that the adsl here is pitifull, we have on average a 3gb download cap(after we go over it we have to buy more) And a 512kbs (downloads at 48kb/s) line is considered fast. This is because we pay about 10$ per gb of data. Also they compared pidgin transfer to our internet speeds and the download was only done 4% by the time the pidign reached its destination.

  6. I suspect that a motorcycle could be used in place of the pigeon. It would provide a much larger payload and return service. I know we used to use a secure courier to deliver tapes between data centers. Here’s a hack to look for a petaByte portable device to go on the motorcycle, Sun and Google have their containers, now let’s see one that is easily portable.

  7. Regarding the speed of the pidgeon, maybe it’s 50 miles by road, but a lot shorter by air? That would be another reason that this is such a great solution. Also the roads might not be all that easy to ride on in a motorcycle or some other high mileage vehicle. Just a thought.

  8. I’m am from SA too. This report is inaccurate. Firstly, their office is not in a “remote” part of the country. It is in a large town, near a major city. The bird and data exchange took just over 2 hours. In order to beat this, a 9 Mbps upload rate is needed. No country offers DSL with such a high upload rate. The company pulling this publicity stunt is a notorious Telemarketing firm that is too cheap to invest in proper data links despite being offered numerous solutions in the past.

  9. @Mike

    the point of the pigeon is that it’s cheap. It probably only costs like $2 a day to feed and keep a pigeon, and it can bypass roads. A motorcycle would cost much more to drive around. Plus you have to pay an employee. Not good.

  10. Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway. —Tanenbaum, Andrew S. (1996). Computer Networks. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. pp. 83.

    Google sneakernet…

  11. Not bad for half duplex. I bet those birds could carry more than a few micro SDs that wuold increase their “bandwidth” in a hurry! Now all you have to do is home a few birds in the other direction and you will bein business$$$

  12. I was born and raised in South Africa and have been living in California for the last ten years. I always tried to keep my country that fought very bravely in the second world war with American allied forces high. People here are talking about a 3rd word country when they talk about South Africa and I always corrected them. The problem In South Africa at the moment is Telcom (the one and only South African telephone company) that is preventing people from communicating by charging terrible outrages prices per minute. This is all done by the black
    communist and corrupt government in South Africa. STOP PEOPLE FROM TALKING AND YOU WILL HAVE NO PROBLEM CONTROLLING YOUR COUNTRY.!!!

  13. It’s been alluded to, but pigeons aren’t troubled by washed out mountain roads, muddy rutted tracks or rush hour traffic. They can also travel more or less “as the crow flies”, which can cut a substantial amount off the travel distance. These are big strengths if those are real possibilities to your motorcycle messenger.

    As for your data falling into enemy hands; that’s what TrueCrypt is for.

  14. I don’t see why a microwave relay system is not implemented for this application. Many business feature these as a contingency for a failed internet connection. Additionally, most TV broadcast vans use this technology with a reasonably tall mast to connect to the studio for live feeds. I’m sure the ping will be better using an actual standard but the initial investment and time to payback are obviously much greater.

  15. hmm. price of 16GB microSD cards is about £5 now, so four of those would give you 64GB of storage for not much weight, surely far less than a pendrive.

    Now if you were *really* cunning, you could add a miniaturised radio transmitter with a timer so that if the pigeon got lost in transit the homing beacon would turn on allowing retrieval of the memory chips.

  16. With the pigeon solution you would still need to travel between the 2 points to pick up the pigeons. You would need pigeon coops at both ends and someone to keep them clean. I used to keep pigeons in my lab and it does take time to keep them clean, fed and watered. Falcons and hydro wires do take a toll as well.

  17. Carrier pigeons can be trained to do a 160km round trip twice a day, carrying 75g (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrier_pigeons).
    A microSD card is available in 16Gb, and weighs 0.5g (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MiniSD_card)

    So a single pigeon will transfer 4.8Tb (yes, Tb) of data both directions each day – equivalent to 58Mb/s full duplex.
    And like the RFC 1149 says, you can add loads of pigeons with no collisions.

    Obviously, there’s a very high latency, and there’s the logistics of transfering data to/from the microSD cards.
    But for certain types of data transfer, in certain environments, this would be an optimal solution.

    You’re looking for situations where large latencies don’t matter (e.g. backup, copying daily transaction logs to head-office, or moving large files like DVD images which are currently normally moved by couriers).

    And they’d need to be preferable to motorbike couriers – pros of pigeons are cost (even if you’ve got to care for them), and not being subject to traffic, flooding, etc – So probably any large city where 80-miles as the crow flies is shorter and quicker than grid-locked one-way systems.

  18. It is great to see this story getting so much web-time.

    The company in question mainly did it as a cheap advertising campaign. Must say, it worked out brilliantly.

    I’m from South Africa and would just like to re-iterate what my fellow Safricans have said so far about internet in SA. It is a dog. I’m actually using HSDPA and it is only marginally more expensive than what gets passed on as “broadband” here.

    Anyway, great story.

  19. problems with the south african avian carrier model:
    – high potential for packet loss
    – no native re-transmit capability
    – no error checking
    – no Quality of Service capability
    – only efficient in ‘burst’ mode (with very full datagrams)

    Now imagine conditions where an avian carrier is used to transfer data from, say, a webserver to a client’s browser. The 4GB MTU allows for massive frames; you can package all the data destined to the browser in one datagram.

    Client HTTP GET request to server: 1 hour for pigeon to delivery
    Server response, with data: 1 hour back

    You’re looking at 2 hours for a page to load, another 2 any time you click a link.

    The theoretical transfer rates on an avian carrier are spectacular but fall apart under models of normal usage.

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