“The idea in a nutshell is to place solar-powered phones high up in the tree canopy of the rainforests where they’re tough to spot, but they can listen in for the sounds of chainsaws”
By Linn Smith
October 10, 2014—According to Wikipedia, “Rainforests are responsible for 28% of the world’s oxygen turnover, processing it through photosynthesis from carbon dioxide and consuming it through respiration. A rainforest emits and absorbs vast quantities of carbon dioxide.” Rainforests once covered 14% of the earth’s surface. Today, they cover less than 2%, but they are habitat to approximately 50% of the planet’s plants and animals.
The Destruction of our Rainforests
Today, rainforests are being destroyed by logging, cattle ranching, agriculture, mining, oil companies searching for new oil deposits and when found, pipelines, and dams. Our planet loses about 6,000 acres of rainforest every hour. According to The Rainforest Foundation, tropical deforestation is the second largest cause of climate change. The Stern Report titled, The Economics of Climate Change, states, “the loss of natural forests contributes more to global (carbon) emissions each year than the transport sector.”
One innovative thinker is working towards saving our rainforests. Silicon Valley physicist and engineer Topher White, has founded a non-profit organization, Rainforest Connections. White says the current ways to detect poaching of trees in the rainforests are either too slow or too expensive. Currently, satellite pictures are used for after-the-fact images of disappearing trees, and aircraft are used to fly over the rainforests to spot logging activity.
Cell Phones: Listening for Loggers
White has come up with another idea involving our recycled cell phones, which could detect intruders in the forests before extensive destruction has begun. Here’s how it works according to Rainforest Connections, “The idea in a nutshell is to place solar-powered phones high up in the tree canopy where they’re tough to spot, but they can listen in for the sounds of chainsaws (and eventually vehicles and poachers). When they detect the sounds of illegal activity, the hidden phones use existing GSM cellphone networks to alert authorities of the location in real time, so that the authorities can deploy to the area and stop the loggers before they fell too many trees.” Each cell phone is housed in special protective casing attached to a solar panel and can protect up to one square mile of forest. White says most areas have good cell phone reception because developing countries find it more efficient and less expensive to set up the technology for cell phone use than running phone lines throughout the countryside.
The original plan of spacing cell phones a mile apart throughout the forest was found to be inefficient as there was too much shade and not enough sunlight in the canopy of branches. White refined his invention and developed the pedal method of installing cell phones in trees, “The petal [design] that you see [in our images] is able to maximize the amount of power that comes out of these rays of light and sunflecks that are able to make it through the canopy.” This method was tested in 2013 in Sumatra, detecting loggers attempting to clear away the forest in less than two weeks of cell phone listening .
Training the Local Community in Maintenance
Dealing with the cell phone payment plans of another country has been an unforseen challenge, but after raising the needed money, Rainforest Connections is ready to take their invention to a larger scale, testing it in Africa and the rainforests of the Amazon. Thereafter, White will work with local law enforcement and environmental groups to train them in running and maintaining the systems. White says that it’s unclear how long the devices will keep functioning in the treetops, but he suspects most will run for a year or two at least and it’s doubtful the supply of discarded phones will run out anytime soon!
The group also plans to create an app that will let anyone in the world listen to the sounds of the rainforest at any time, and receive alerts from the trees in real time.