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Scientists take to the sky to map Leicester’s air quality

Physicists at the University of Leicester to map city’s air quality using plane-mounted spectrometer to track pollutant levels

Scientists at the University of Leicester are set to undertake a groundbreaking project to map air quality across the city, which will see flights across the city using planes fitted with pollution detecting technology.

An air quality measuring spectrometer, developed by the Leicester team will be used to produce “heatmap” style images of pollution levels in Leicester as part of the Airborne Air Quality Mapper (AAQM) project.

The device monitors visible light – and measures how much light is lost at specific wavelengths absorbed by NO2. Development of the instrument took place with Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and was funded by the UK’s Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation and the Natural Environment Research Council.

Images show how levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) vary around the city – revealing the differences in air quality between green, wooded areas and busy road junctions and areas of industry.


The results could help draw attention to polluted areas – and help inform future environmental planning decisions. The project is being supported by Leicester city council and Defra.

Project leader Dr Roland Leigh, of the Earth Observation Science group, said: “This is the first time in the UK anyone has been able to use airborne devices to map pollution levels across whole cities. This information really helps us understand the sources of pollution within cities, and the human exposure downwind.

“We are hoping to do carry out further flights as part of the Airborne Air Quality Mapper project – and are looking for potential collaborators and customers.”

The researchers hope to carry out further flights with industrial partners Bluesky International Ltd, a UK-based specialist in aerial imaging and remote sensing data collection and processing. They also hope to be able to adapt the technology to use on spacecraft to monitor pollution levels across the globe.

Dr James Lawrence, Research Associate in the Earth Observation Science Group, developed aspects of the AAQM instrument and flew with it during its test flight.

He said: “We have a world-first spectrometer which shows where the major emissions of nitrogen dioxide are occurring – typically in industrial or heavy traffic areas.

“It is important to note that the measurements do not necessarily relate to the pollution levels at ground level only – each reading takes into account the amount of NO2 at all altitudes between the ground and the plane.”