Sniffer drones: The answer to Poland's suffocating smog problem?

A tech startup thinks it may have the solution to the headache of policing Poland's most polluted areas.

Video: How the Nosacz, or Sniffer, drone helps fight smog.

Polish cities have a huge smog problem. It's mainly caused by the country's almost religious use of coal-fired heating, but exacerbated by people burning rubbish instead of not-so-clean-but-still-cleaner fossil fuels.

Now, one Polish company is offering some technology that should simplify enforcement of environmental rules.

Like most large cities in Poland, Katowice is struggling with choking smog. Indeed, 33 of the top 50 worst-polluted cities in Europe are in Poland.

Katowice is right up there and, at one point during this winter, even had the worst air quality in the world, surpassing even the usual suspects, such as Kolkata and Mumbai in India.

On a fairly regular basis, the particle norms are exceeded five or six times in the Polish city. Katowice is hardly an exception, even though the situation is worse in the industrial, coal-loving south of the country.

Part of the problem is that consumers sometimes think of their heaters as easy waste disposal devices. While doing so is illegal, it is a law that's desperately hard to enforce.

The City Guard, as the Poles call their municipal police, can only conduct inspections by randomly knocking on doors and taking samples. Adding to that problem are the fines, which are pitched low even by Polish standards at 100 zloty, less than €25 or $30, and not much is happening to combat this problem.

But that may change thanks to a system thought up by Gliwice-based drone producer Flytronic. In February the company conducted a pilot project with the Katowice City Guard to test their Nosacz, or Sniffer, drone above chimneys in the most-polluted areas.

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Designing the Sniffer was not easy, says Przemyslaw Tomkow, head of training at Flytronic.

"We needed measuring equipment that was especially produced to mount on our hexacopter," he tells ZDNet. "But producers only had stationary or handheld models of their sensor arrays. It took our partner three months to produce one."

Flytronic wanted a laser sensor for the various particulates, and four additional sensors for chemicals such as formaldehyde that suggest the burning of rubbish like PVC, painted or wet wood.

Not only did the array need to be able to measure the exact particles on the fly but it also had to be able to pinpoint the exact location of the samples using GPS. "The sensor array also had to be as light as possible, and we needed a good data connection."

All that equipment has been mounted on a 13kg (28.5lb) hexacopter designed to stay in the air even in case of a failure of one of the propellers. "We are flying above urban areas, so we couldn't risk the drone crashing and possibly hurting passers-by."

According to Tomkow, the test has been a success. "Our goal was to see if the data was accurate enough to warrant a ground inspection by local officers," he says. "In all cases, the ground inspection did turn up grounds for a fine."

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Alone, samples collected by the drones don't constitute sufficient grounds for a fine. "But if authorities turn up, inhabitants would in all cases simply admit they burned illegal materials."

Flytronic now wants to take it further, and demonstrate the Sniffer to other interested local authorities at the end of March, and also start tests to see how many instances the drone could detect in the course of a normal working day. But the technology might still come up against some legal issues.

Drone laws are still being discussed in the country, which include privacy issues. "We've already heard claims that drones cannot fly above houses as it would violate their 'personal airspace'', even if there is no such thing," Tomkow says.

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Alone, samples collected by the drones don't constitute sufficient grounds for a fine.

Image: Flytronic

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