The Internet of Trees: How Your Old Smartphone Could Help Save the Rainforest

By Kathryn Nave, Contributor

In 2012, Topher White was taking a break from his work as a web engineer at France’s ITER fusion reactor by volunteering at an Indonesian gibbon reserve, when he had an encounter that would change the trajectory of his life. Hiking out into what seemed like pristine rainforest one morning, White ran straight into a man with a chainsaw, chopping an old teak tree into lumber.

The reserve was small, he wasn’t far from the ranger station. Still, the three full-time guards were unable to keep a constant eye over a square mile of forest, making small-scale logging a tempting proposition for many living nearby.

An inveterate engineer, White is the kind of person who, even in the rainforest, happened to have some electrical components and an old phone on hand, “just for fun.” So he hacked together a rudimentary listening station and demonstrated it for the rangers. They liked it enough that White headed back a year later to set up a permanent system.

This proved its value in just 48 hours, when White received a GPS alert for chainsaw sounds on the other side of the reserve and headed out with the rangers to investigate. They arrived at the location within minutes to find a small group of men from the local village chopping down trees. This unexpectedly rapid response was enough to send a message. White said, “You can’t log here anymore, because if you do, you will get caught.”

Since then, White has raised over $160,000 on Kickstarter to create conservation non-profit Rainforest Connection. The organization has now launched hundreds of smartphone ‘Guardians’ in remote regions of forests all over the world, expanding monitoring capacities for local conservation groups from the Tembé tribe of the Brazilian Amazon to Peruvian government rangers in the Alto Mayo. Together, the efforts have protected over 100 square miles of forest.

Creating the Guardians

While the operation has scaled, the Guardians are still built on the same smartphone bases. For one thing, it’s a small contribution to reducing the impact of the 350,000 phones discarded daily in the U.S. alone. For another, “It’s actually a great little computer to write software for,” White explained. “It has all the sensors that we need and it can connect to the cellular networks. Building something like that from scratch would be very hard.”

Instead, discarded smartphones are repackaged into a box with a powerful microphone, a battery reserve and a solar panel, specially designed to maximize the energy from the sun flecks that make it through the tree canopy. The Guardian contraption is then placed around 150 feet up a tree, accessing cell towers up to 12 miles away and detecting sounds over a mile away.

Still, the innovative project faces its own set of challenges. “It feels like launching a satellite to me,” White said. “The Guardians are in places that are so inaccessible, and they’re trying to do a very energy-intensive thing in this very harsh, wet and hot environment.”

Worse, still, are the bugs. “You learn that in the forest, insects rule, and they sure do love to chew things up,” White mused. “It’s an arms race against the termites out there.”

And then there is the noise. From the calls of howler monkeys to the squawking of the macaws, the rainforest is rarely a quiet place. No matter how sensitive your microphone is, picking out anomalies amid the cacophony is a difficult task.

“This could be one of the easiest ways to make a significant impact on preventing climate change.”

— Topher White, founder and CEO of Rainforest Connection

Yet rather than running this computationally demanding analysis on the phone itself, the Guardians continuously stream audio to the cloud, where Rainforest Connection’s system analyzes it for suspicious sounds, like chainsaws, trucks, or motorbikes. More recently, they’ve also begun to spot predictive patterns, such as the calling sounds of certain bird species falling unusually quiet when intruders draw near, in order to send warnings before loggers even arrive at a site.

This sensitivity in pattern recognition is crucial now that Rainforest Connection is helping people take on larger and more dangerous black-market operations, where confrontation could potentially be much more dangerous than it was back in Indonesia.

“A lot of our partners typically wouldn’t show up at a site because if they do it’s going to be a gunfight,” White said. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid and that’s why this real-time or even predictive response is important, because if you stop a truck on the way in, then the stakes are pretty low.”

In the predictive scenario, no crime has been committed yet, but the invaders know they’re going to get caught so, in some cases, they will turn around and just leave. Alternatively, “if you show up once they’re already cutting down trees,” White said, “then the stakes are high and people can get hurt.”

Biomonitoring

Successful intervention usually has a longer-term impact than just driving the loggers away one time. Illegal logging relies on being able to operate undercover, and once the organizations know that an area is under surveillance, it’s typically enough to keep them away for at least a year, White explained. This yearly estimate is based on the organization’s own observations, as well as reports from partners at the five sites where the systems are installed.

That leaves Rainforest Connection with the question of what to do with the hundreds of hours of undisturbed rainforest recordings that they’re continuously collecting. One solution is to use machine learning to allow ecologists and biologists to build sound profiles for species that interest them. From here, the researchers would be able to — at-will — select relevant recordings from Rainforest Connection’s database.

“Right now, if you’re an ecologist and you want to do research on the rainforest, you’d have to apply for a grant and wait months for it to come through,” White said. “Then you’d fly out and record for maybe two weeks, and then you take this back to your lab and spend years analyzing just a couple of weeks of audio you were able to collect. With [Guardian technology], we can make years worth of audio data, from hundreds of locations, available to them instantly.”

Ultimately, White wants anyone in the world to be able to listen to the sounds of the forest. Rainforest Connection’s smartphone app now allows anyone to tune into sound streams from six different locations in Peru, Ecuador, and South Africa. This is important, he explained, because the survival of the rainforests should matter to more than just the animal species and the humans who inhabit them.

“The destruction of the rainforests is the second largest contributor to climate change,” White said. “The CO2 emissions from deforestation are greater than all other forms of transportation put together.” But 90 percent of this deforestation is illegal and because it’s already a crime, there’s no additional mandate to stop the ongoing abuse.

With White’s rainforest engineering underway, it seems possible tackle the crux of the issue. For White, “this could be one of the easiest ways to make a significant impact on preventing climate change.”