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A Network of Recycled Phones Is Listening for Illegal Logging in the Rainforest

Hey, Neil Young thinks it's a good idea.
Image: Rainforest Connection/Kickstarter

When your smartphone reaches the end of its brief life, what will become of it? Will it be pawned off onto an unappreciative relative, or will it be discarded, its toxic innards eventually seeping into the earth?

Or, will it become a champion of conservation? Rainforest Connection, a San Francisco-based nonprofit with a new Kickstarter campaign out, is converting old phones into devices to detect illegal logging and poaching in the rainforest in real-time.


Illegal logging destroys precious habitats and threatens endangered species, costs the global economy tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue every year, and is a major contributor to climate change: It is estimated that tropical deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.

The majority of the deforestation that occurs in tropical forests is carried out illegally. While there’s an international mandate to stop illegal deforestation, the hard part is enforcing it. Right now forests are monitored by satellite imagery, but new areas of deforestation often aren’t detected until days, weeks, even years too late.

Rainforest Connection founder Topher White and his colleagues have developed a new way system, using a network of makeshift devices—anything from recycled Android handsets to discarded fragments of solar panels—that can pick out the unmistakable sound of chainsaws over a mile away and raise the alarm for conservationists on the ground in real-time.

“This old cell phone has more effect than going out and buying a hybrid car for tens of thousands of dollars."

It’s killing two birds with one stone. “Every year 150 million cell phones are discarded in the United States alone. And yet, these are really fantastic little computers,” White told me. Smartphones often come fitted with sensors and are built to be power efficient. They’re plugged into the almost-worldwide GSM network, with an effective software development kit and a stable operating system.

Image: Rainforest Connection/Kickstarter

The devices have so far been tested in the wild of Western Sumatra in Indonesia. The recycled phones are protected from the elements inside a plastic box and camouflaged high up in the tree canopy, equipped with range-extending microphones. They need only a tiny signal—“less than a bar”—to send raw audio to the server for analysis. If suspicious sounds are detected, an alert will be sent in the form of a call, push alert, or SMS to the relevant authorities.

The biggest engineering challenge, White explained, has been powering the devices. Solar power was the only option, yet under the rainforest canopy, direct light breaks through only in sporadic sun flecks.

Typical solar photovoltaic arrays are compromised when even the smallest shadow falls upon them. To solve this, the team configured a new system that maximizes the power that can be generated from this limited light, and fashioned waste strips of solar panel wafer into six “petals” extending from each device. The resulting system, while very low voltage and inefficient, produces enough energy for the device to run indefinitely.

White calculates that each device can protect 300 hectares of endangered forest, preventing logging that would release 15,000 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

“This old cell phone has more effect than going out and buying a hybrid car for tens of thousands of dollars,” he said. “It just goes to show the solution to these things isn’t necessarily the most expensive.”

The test-run in Sumatra has successfully deterred illegal loggers, White told me, and the company wants to expand to Africa and Brazil, even the ancient Redwoods in California. Next up is a pilot in Cameroon, covering a vast 430-mile reserve. That operation will be funded by Rainforest Connection’s crowdfunding campaign, which Neil Young has thrown his celebrity behind. The group has raised $58,000 toward its $100,000 goal so far.

White is also developing a mobile app, due out in late 2014, to livestream the sounds of the rainforest around the world, hoping to galvanize new conservation efforts.

“The real-time data isn’t just about stopping deforestation, its also about bringing rainforest preservation into the 21st century,” White explained. “The rainforest is abstract, it’s far away, and the only way people are being engaged is by being asked to donate money. The app is about creating a live link between the rainforest and you.”