How DIY Electronics Benefit The Environment

glacial23/CC BY-SA 2.0

The growing trend toward DIY electronics is good news for the environmental movement. DIYing both directly and indirectly benefits the planet; not only are resources saved by reusing parts and rebuilding gadgets, but also tasks accomplished with the newly created devices can be of use for everyone from scientists to the average home owner.

Do It Yourself Electronics and Citizen Scientists

A straight line of thought from DIY electronics and conservation leads us to DIY science, or citizen science. There are innumerable ways that citizen science helps the environmental movement, from activism to data collection. And there are many projects in which a few common devices and a little know-how is helping out researchers.

One such example is the NOAH app.

With NOAH, you can photograph an interesting plant, bug or animal that you want to learn about, send in the photo along with a little info about where you found it, and store it in the species database. You can sort through the database to find out more about the flora and fauna around you, and your uploaded data will be added upon by local experts. While it's a fun way to use your device for your own scientific knowledge, it's more importantly a way to participate in larger-scale data collection for researchers.

Similarly, a citizen science organization called eBird is using information collected and maintained by amateur birdwatchers to help scientists. Using the raw information, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have already analyzed this data for 18 different species of migratory birds and found that birds in eastern North America are being affected by climate change.

DIY science using common electronic devices is becoming more common. Cell phones alone can be used for monitoring air or water quality, tracking wildlife, monitoring use of and saving energy, and more. Digital cameras are also at the heart of DIY when it comes to the environment.

DIY aerial photography using kites and balloons with cheap digital cameras hacked to take images every five seconds helped visualize the extent of the damage of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The project was done by the Grassroots Mapping Project and is all open source so anyone can use the technology to do their own environmental monitoring in a similar fashion.

But this not the only creative use of tech to spy on wildlife and the environment, not by a long shot.

DrLianPinKoh/CC BY 2.0

DIY Electronic Projects for Watching and Monitoring Wildlife

Another inspiring way DIY tech is utilized for environmentalism is through cheap drones. Lian Pin Koh, an ecologist at the ETH Zürich, and Serge Wich, a biologist at the University of Zürich and PanEco created a conservation drone complete with cameras, sensors and GPS to map deforestation and count orangutans and other endangered species in northern Sumatra. While some systems can run as high as $50,000, Koh's first drone was only $2,000 to build. The lower cost through DIY ingenuity makes all the difference to conservation groups who are strapped for cash but have a mile-long to-do list.

The bird's-eye view from above is useful for monitoring large areas or finding specific animals, but the view from the ground is equally as important. What started out as a DIY project has become practically an obsession for Will Lucas-Burrard, a professional wildlife photographer who created the "BeetleCam" -- a camera on a remote control car which is hearty enough to hold up against even curious lions. Projects like this afford photographers and videographers a chance to record their subjects in new and potentially less intrusive ways, which means audiences get a fresh look at wildlife.

© William Burrard-Lucas

Even backyard bird photographers can get more creative with DIY projects, such as motion-sensor cameras that can capture amazing images like this from Gerry Sibell, who experimented with set-ups until he figured out just what worked perfectly:

Such an interesting look at what's in your own yard can give you an appreciation for local wildlife, which needs protection as much as species in far off places.

However, there's more to the environmental benefits of the DIY ethic than the use of electronics for projects. There are also the more direct benefits for the planet, which stem from reducing the amount of resources and energy used by electronics.

DIY Electronic Projects Minimize Natural Resource Use

Whether it's repairing a broken device yourself, upgrading components rather than replacing a device with a new version, or building something yourself from spare parts, bringing the DIY ethic to your gadgets is a significant way to reduce impact on the planet.

The average cell phone is replaced every 18 months. The average laptop is replaced every two years. The rate at which we consume electronic devices is an incredible burden on the planet as we mine metals to make new devices, use up energy and create pollution through manufacturing plants and transporting devices around the world to consumers. In fact, the vast majority of energy that goes into a device is not from charging it as we use it, but rather what it takes to make the device and its parts in the first place.

A DIY attitude toward gadgets includes using old parts for new purposes, even to the point of disassembling old parts to use just small components of them for new projects. This kind of focus on reuse -- on knowing how to reuse -- is an important way of minimizing the footprint of electronic devices.

Electronic DIY Projects Minimizing Energy Use

DIYing gadgets isn't just about making more things that consume energy -- it's also about making more things that help us minimize energy use. Makers and hackers have a wonderful history of coming up with projects that reduce energy consumption, providing a way to measure, monitor, adjust, and share energy use information in order to change habits.

Some of our favorite projects include the Tweet-A-Watt, a Kill-A-Watt hacked to tweet out energy use so that friends can keep track of and compete with one another's reduced energy consumption; the Kinect Home Automation and Lighting Control Hack, which can monitor where a person is in a house and shut off lights and appliances based on location; and a set of glowing balloons that show air quality levels at a given place, changing the color of their glow based on what pollutants are present in the atmosphere.

These are just a tiny sample of the many cool ways DIYers are hacking gadgets to help the planet. So -- what will you do with your gadgets to help the planet? Check out our Do It Yourself page to get more ideas!

Tags: Do It Yourself | Gadgets | longreads

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