In just a few years, more than half of Indonesia’s rainforest has disappeared to make way for agribusinesses that supply products such as toilet paper. Despite the fact that the government has issued a moratorium, logging and burning is still happening. As in other huge forests around the world, it’s just too easy for someone to cut down trees when they know they won’t get caught, and it’s impossible for governments or nonprofits to patrol vast remote areas.
New technology, however, might help. The Rainforest Connection, a solar-powered device made from recycled smartphones, can monitor the forest autonomously and alert a forest ranger when it detects a chainsaw, gunshots, or animal distress calls.
The device was the brainchild of engineer Topher White, who, while visiting a wildlife preserve in Indonesia, watched illegal logging happen five minutes away from a ranger station.
“To me this seemed like a ridiculous problem–that such a destructive activity could happen without anyone knowing about it. I noticed that I had cell service on my phone, and it immediately struck me that this was something we could use.”
White rigged up a set of old phones with a microphone, and was able to program the system to recognize distant chainsaws in the middle of the cacophony of usual jungle sounds. “It turns out that was the easy part,” he says. “The hard part was keeping them powered.”
Since the devices are intended to be installed high up in trees in remote areas, they had to be maintenance-free. Solar power seemed like the obvious answer at first, until White realized that solar cells stop working in the shade. “Under tree canopies, you have 90%-95% shadow,” he explains. “Occasionally, you’ll get rays of light that break through when the wind blows, and I had to build a panel with that in mind.”
Ultimately, he was able to piece together a solution from strips of crystalline solar cells that are usually discarded by manufacturers. It’s just enough power to keep the system running. With all of the electronics sealed inside a weatherproof case, the design could last on its own for two or even three years, he estimates.
As soon as the device was tested in the field, it worked: On the third day of setting up the phones in a tree, White had an alert on his phone that there was logging in the distance. The team was able to catch the loggers and spend a couple of hours talking with them.
“It was one of these situations where now that there’s some level of accountability, it stopped,” White says. “In a sort of very Wild West situation as it is in the jungle, in most places, people can more or less get away with whatever they want the farther they are from any sort of accountability. By putting accountability into the equation, it allowed the situation to more or less resolve itself.”
A relatively small amount of technology can help monitor a large area. Rainforest Connection is working on a pilot on a preserve in Cameroon that covers 7,000 square kilometers, but by covering a small area at access points around the perimeter, they believe they can effectively monitor most of the park. “We’re covering that area with 30 old cell phones,” White says. A single device protects an area of forest that, if logged, would release more carbon dioxide than 3,000 cars.
The team is raising funds on Kickstarter now to help get more devices in the field.