Solar-powered smartphones to be used to monitor rainforest for illegal logging

rainforest image
CC BY-SA 2.0 Dennis Stenbjerg

If a tree falls in the rainforest, and nobody hears it, does it matter?

Monitoring large tracts of the rainforest for illegal logging activities may soon get a bit easier, as a plan to use a network of solar-powered smartphones to listen for the sounds of chainsaws is underway.

Yes, especially if that tree is in a protected area or reserve, because illegal logging and deforestation can take a huge toll in an ecosystem in just a short amount of time. Current monitoring systems, such as satellite photos, can track illegal logging after the fact (when it's too late to do anything about it), but if conservation agencies and park rangers could be alerted to real-time logging activity, they may have a chance to stop it by responding right away.

A plan for using discarded smartphones, powered by small solar panels, to monitor audio frequencies across areas of protected rainforest and send alerts to authorities when the sounds of chainsaws are detected will be soon put into use by Rainforest Connection in western Sumatra. The non-profit organization's pilot project will entail deploying a series of 15 modified Android smartphones in an area within the huge (25,000 hectare) Air Tarusan reserve, which will use the built-in microphones to listen for the tell-tale frequencies of chainsaw motors over a .5 km radius surrounding them.

"Rainforest Connection is the first platform with the potential to generate real-time data on deforestation activity in tropical rainforests. In doing so, it aims to combat illegal tree poaching by leveraging modern technological and social paradigms to reduce reliance on human resources and magnify the impact of environmentalists on-the-ground.

Hardware devices are installed sporadically in trees in threatened reserves. Each device continuously monitors audible frequencies, and abnormal signals (i.e. chainsaw frequencies) are transmitted to an internet-based central database. Alerts are generated in real-time and sent to responsible agents in the forest, enabling real-time intervention. Data generated through this platform are also made freely available through an open web service (API), allowing a global community of software developers to build real-time apps.

In doing so, rainforest surveillance becomes a low-cost, crowdsourced, scalable endeavor, and we are able to tap the unlimited resources of a growing worldwide population of tech-savvy eco-enthusiasts."

When the sound signature of a chainsaw is detected by one of the phones, it will trigger an alert that gets sent to park rangers, who can then respond to the incident as it happens. At first, the network of smartphones will only alert rangers, but according to Topher White, the founder of Rainforest Connection, they eventually want to release a free app for letting users receive the alerts as well, so that the initiative is more expansive and crowdsourced.

"We want to make people feel like they are taking part in the dramatic events on the front lines of environmental protection" - White

The initial project will use brand new smartphones, but Rainforest Connection ultimately wants to take advantage of the modern gadget consumer cycle and use older, trade-in models of phones that are essentially obsolete to users once they purchase an upgraded device.

In addition, the organization hopes they can eventually simplify the system so that it's easy for locals to enable more monitoring of the rainforests, somewhat in the manner of 'plug-n-play' systems, where a phone can be added to the network with just a few basic steps.

"We'll ultimately rely upon locals to intervene when an 'event' is detected. Making it simple, effective and accessible for them is our first priority." - White

If you'd like to help out with this endeavor by donating your old Android phone, the details are available on this post on the Rainforest Connection Facebook page.

Tags: Conservation | Technology

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