22. August 2023 | Press releases:

Using Drones to Record Pollutant Distribution More Accurately Automated flight systems can improve air quality forecasting

Drones have great potential to provide measurement data for improving pollution models. However, there is still a long way to go before they can be used regularly. This is the conclusion of the MesSBAR project, short for “Automatisierte luftgestützte Messung der Schadstoffbelastung in der erdnahen Atmosphäre in städten Räumen” (Automated airborne measurement of pollution in the near-earth atmosphere in urban areas), which was funded as part of the Modernity Fund of the Federal Ministry of Digital Affairs and Transport.

The company Leichtwerk AG developed new types of drones as flexible measurement platforms, which were equipped with a special sensor package by the Institute of Flight Guidance at Technische Universität Braunschweig. This allowed them to be used as a flying measurement laboratory for the dynamic, three-dimensional recording of air pollutants. The most important air quality parameters – soot, fine dust, ozone, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide – were recorded in parallel in flight together with air temperature and humidity and sent live to the ground control station. In the process, challenging weight/size and performance requirements for the sensor technology were successfully solved and very lightweight devices were integrated on board the drones.

The project partners TROPOS (World Calibration Centre for Aerosols), Forschungszentrum Jülich and the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (national metrology institute) ensured high data quality and traceability to national standards in the project. The Federal Environment Agency and the Federal Highway Research Institute integrated the requirements of potential long-term users of such systems with the aim of regular routine use in the future and an improved and more frequent determination of air quality.

Clear conclusion: improvement of the forecast

MesSBAR successfully implemented the use of drones at a measuring station of the Federal Highway Research Institute near Wesseling in North Rhine-Westphalia. This made it possible to link pollutant data to the EURAD-IM model (“EURopean Air pollution Dispersion-Inverse Model”) to predict air quality.

The result: When the data obtained is used in the model, the forecast of pollutant concentrations improves significantly. The additional data on altitude distribution provides information on whether pollutants have accumulated at low altitudes or spread quickly to higher altitudes and over larger areas, depending on the weather conditions.

Hurdles to regular use

From the project, it was possible to derive the more precise requirements for a regular, automated deployment of pollutant drones. For a regular use of such a system, various challenges still need to be overcome: Permission for flights, for example, requires a comprehensive assessment of the associated risk. Requirements and follow-up work to improve system safety and reliability have also been derived. The experience gained during the MesSBAR flights in integrating the drones into the airspace and the coordination with German air traffic control was extremely positive and promising with regard to future measurement campaigns.


Keeping the air clean and limiting pollution levels are of great importance for safeguarding the quality of life. Pollutants are usually measured stationarily at different locations and predicted with models. However, the distribution of pollutants at altitude can so far only be recorded with great effort. In order to optimise the predictions and to check measures for pollutant reduction, a flexibly applicable measuring system was developed, tested and applied in the “MesSBAR” project. The project was funded by the Federal Ministry of Digital Affairs and Transport (BMDV) within the framework of the Modernity Fund (“mFUND”) funding guideline with a total of 2.27 million euros from 2019 to 2023.

About the mFUND of the BMDV

As part of the mFUND research initiative, the BMDV has been funding research and development projects related to data-based digital applications for the mobility of the future since 2016. In addition to financial funding, the mFUND supports networking between stakeholders from politics, business and research as well as access to the BMDV’s data portals with various event formats. Further information can be found at www.mfund.de.