Protecting the rainforests with IoT and recycled phones

Rainforest Connection taps the power of IoT to protect rainforests against illegal logging

Protecting the rainforests with IoT and recycled phones

“Timber!” That’s what you hear from a lumberjack in movies before a tree comes crashing down.

But that’s not what you’ll hear in rainforests while one tree after another is cut down. Why? The logging is often illegal, and the last thing the culprits want is to attract attention.

Rainforests once covered 14 percent of the earth's land surface. Now they cover just 6 percent, and experts estimate that the last remaining rainforests could be consumed in less than 40 years. (The Amazon rainforest itself produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen.)

Worst still, wildlife and local cultures that depend on the rainforest ecosystem are being wiped as well. Local authorities and indigenous tribes are fighting back against the illegally clearing of the rainforest for commercial farming. This tussle between poor villagers and well-funded commercial logging interests is pretty one-sided, but IoT is helping to level the playing field a little.

It’s a tough problem to solve. Imagine hundreds of acres of dense forest to protect, few roads, dispersed villagers and forest wardens competing against loggers intent on clearing land. Monitoring things on the ground isn't feasible. Airborne inspection is too expensive and doesn’t work well when there is a thick canopy. What’s needed is an affordable solution that can monitor a large area, detect illegal logging activity and alert the authorities in a timely manner.

Sensors alert authorities of illegal loggers

Topher White and David Grenell, the founders of Rainforest Connection, developed a solution that uses the sound of loggers’ tools, such as chainsaws and trucks to haul away the logs, against them. They install sensors in rainforests that each monitor the sounds in a square-mile area. Villagers and local authorities are alerted when the sound of chainsaws or trucks is detected.

Installing rainforest sensor

Installing a rainforest sensor

Designing a rugged solution that's also affordable and easy to install is hard. It has to work in extreme humidity, operate in heavy rainfall and be self-powered.

[MORE: They said the iPhone would flop.]

Applying some good old-fashioned ingenuity, White and Grenell decided to repurpose some of the more than 150 million phones discarded every year in the U.S. as the sensors for this project. Rainforest Connection adapts old phones, making them waterproof and powered by solar panels. They take advantage of low-cost cellular plans to have the phones transmit rainforest sounds to the cloud—appropriately named Amazon Web Services, for analysis. SMS alerts are issued when the sounds of logging are detected. 

Rainforest Connection approach

The Rainforest Connection has completed pilot projects and demonstrated that its system works. Now the organization is expanding its operations to the Amazon, Africa and Indonesia. The potential benefit is enormous. Every acre of rainforest that is preserved generates the oxygen equivalent to getting 3,000 cars off the road. 

Help silence the chainsaws! Donate your old phones and help support Rainforest Connection in their quest to protect the world’s rainforests and the air supply we all breathe.

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