Imagine you’re in a rainforest… what would you hear? Pessimists would say the chuckles of poachers and illegal loggers with the depressing roar of a chainsaw. But really think, is that what you would hear?
In reality, there’s the chittering of insects, cawing of rhinoceros hornbill, chirping of cicadas and howling of gibbons which summate to form a cacophony of sound. If you’re a ranger trying to stop illegal logging how are you supposed to hear the people you’re trying to catch? In a TED talk by engineer Topher White an anecdote shows how illegal loggers were in action only 5 minutes walk from where they were stood, yet could not be heard. Clearly this makes it seem like stopping illegal logging is near impossible?
Unfortunately, the need to stop illegal logging is clear. We are a new era called the Anthropocene, where a 6th mass extinction of life is occurring in part due to the loss of extremely biodiverse rainforest ecosystems. Moreover, deforestation accounts for 17% of anthropogenic GHG emissions annually, compared to only 13% by all forms of transport (ships, road vehicles, planes and trains) and so illegal logging is an extremely important activity to prevent to combat climate change.
However, thanks to some ingenious technology literally built from scraps by White, we might yet have a chance to stop illegal logging in its tracks. But how can we stop illegal logging if we can’t even hear it happening and so can’t respond in real-time? White decided to tackle the problem head on by keeping the concept simple, using 3 things that were readily available in most rainforests: (surprisingly) good mobile connectivity, wide mobile phone usage and people trying to protect the forest.
What he envisaged was a device that could pick up the sound of chainsaws whirring, filtered out from the rest of the sounds in the forest and then send an alert to rangers via the mobile network to go stop the illegal loggers. What could be used as an effective listening device that can use the mobile network and not cost the earth?
Mobile phones were the answer. They are crammed full of different sensors that can be modified and programmed to detect chainsaw sounds in the forest whilst being thrown out as waste all across the world. White’s project aims to get people to send in their old mobile phones which not only reduces cost dramatically but also promotes recycling too.
With the capacity already there for this kind of technology to work effectively, White had just one problem to eliminate: how to power such a device. The only feasible way to power a device in a remote area seemed to be a solar-powered battery, but with a thick forest canopy solar panels would need to be specially made to charge the device enough. White spent many hours tinkering in his parent’s garage, fitting the mobiles inside a protective box and attaching a fan-like structure made of recycled products with unused solar panel cut-offs. This allows the solar panels to attach neatly around the trunk of the tree and efficiently absorb enough light to power the mobile. They are also able to be well hidden from thieves and loggers up in the canopy.
So how good are these listening devices? They can hear illegal logging up to 1km away, giving them an effective 3km2 range and have been shown to work out in Indonesia by White. It’s actually been so effective, that on one of the tests White and the local rangers received an email from a device nearby and successfully intercepted a group of illegal loggers in the process of cutting down a tree. They were so shocked that they were caught, they have never returned to the area since and has shown that being able to do real-time prevention can be a great deterrent of this destructive activity.
I imagine such technology could be rolled out worldwide to combat not only illegal logging, but also poaching and other illegal activities. If you can isolate a sound that is associated with poaching – it could be the loading of weapons or just sound of a group in a place where you would not expect anyone to be – then you could create listening posts to allow rangers to keep one step ahead of poachers. As poachers (and illegal loggers to a lesser extent) are getting access to more and more technologically advanced equipment such as helicopters and weaponry, rangers need every bit of help they can get to protect wildlife and habitat. The thing I love about White’s technology is that it is cheap, good for the environment (the device could effectively be 100% recycled) and effective. It has so much potential and it is great to see a person see a problem, think carefully about how to solve it and then find a neat solution that benefits the planet.
 TED talk @ http://blog.therainforestsite.com/cs-cellphone-forest/