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topher white-rainforest1

Protector of Rainforests

Transforming recycled cell phones into solar powered guardians of the rainforests.

Rainforests are Earth’s oldest living ecosystems, some surviving in their present form for at least 70 million years, according to National Geographic. But deforestation by illegal logging is a colossal threat to critically important ecosystems and contributes to global warming. Endangered species are facing extinction as a result of a loss of habitat and poaching. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, every second, nearly three acres of rainforest are destroyed or significantly degraded and could lead to complete deforestation by the year 2100. An estimated 50 to 90 percent of all rainforest logging is illegal, according to INTERPOL.

The need to prevent illegal logging of our rainforests is at a critical point. A lack of surveillance in the deepest rainforests and the inability to alert responders promptly are the primary reasons illegal activity is so rampant. What grand scale solution could be devised and quickly implemented to save our rainforests and, ultimately, our existence?

Saving the Rainforest

Sometimes brilliant ideas come in small packages. With a little ingenuity and passion for saving our rainforests, one man stepped up to the challenge and succeeded in helping to keep illegal logging in check all over the world. Topher White, an engineer, physicist, and inventor, became alarmed at the urgency for a solution and developed a unique, novel method for detecting illegal logging. He found a way to use recycled cell phones and created the world’s first audio-based logging detection system. Discarded cell phones are repurposed into solar-powered listening devices that zero in on chainsaw activity even at great distances. Once the autonomous devices detect activity, they send alerts to responders and set in motion real-time intervention.

Photo: Von Wong

The devices are so effective, they’ve helped to thwart illegal logging and poaching in Sumatra, Africa, and Brazil. White has worked with indigenous tribes in the Amazon to help them monitor their lands for illegal logging, poaching, and settlements. Other places tested include Belize, the Philippines, Romania, and Peru.

White founded the Rainforest Connection (RFCx) in 2012 and has been building hardware and software to protect rainforests in nine countries on five continents. Inexpensive to produce yet highly effective, the rainforest “ears” are strategically located in vulnerable areas, protecting over 7,400 acres of rainforest around the world.

The recycled cell phones form a Forest Guardian network of listening devices linking partners with an instant warning of illegal activity, its type, and location. Once alerted, the local partners can take action and provide immediate on-the-ground intervention. Partners include indigenous tribes, government agencies, community groups, and other organizations working in tandem to thwart illegal activity. See how technology is helping preserve ancient cultures…

Each listening device streams audio that is uploaded to digital cloud storage in real-time. Artificial intelligence models analyze the uploaded audio to detect sound anomalies. These could include the sounds of chainsaws, vehicles, road building, machinery, or other unusual sounds. Upon detection, the unusual activities are immediately relayed to rangers and other responders on the ground to take action.

Poachers Beware

The threat of poaching certain wildlife species living in the rainforest is especially alarming, particularly for those that are endangered. Dwindling populations of these rare creatures emphasize the need for surveillance. Sounds of rare animals and birds are being live-streamed and monitored using White’s audio technology. Scientists can tap into an expansive library of digital sounds and study wildlife populations in specific areas and contribute to conservation efforts. Live streaming allows listening in on wildlife anytime day or night to detect the habits and presence or lack of presence of certain species.

Anyone can stay connected to this worthy cause by downloading the Rainforest Connection app on an iPhone or Android. The user can listen in real-time to life in the rainforests of Peru, Ecuador, and other places.

Just the Beginning

The Forest Guardian system has been tested and is beyond the proof of concept phase with a large number of deployments in the pipeline. White says, “RFCX expects to have an impact on 6,000 sq km of threatened ecosystems and produce 450 years’ worth of audio over the next 24 months.” He anticipates the impact on conservation and research will triple.

RFCx expects to expand not only in areas of illegal logging and poaching but also protecting the forest and marine ecosystems. Monitoring ecosystems will include using shared data for more intensive analysis, connecting research to conservation. Take a moment to view White’s impressive TED Talk…

Using What’s Already There

White started his journey in 2011 when he volunteered to work at an ape sanctuary in Borneo. He was awe-struck at how loud the sounds in the rainforest were. After stumbling upon illegal loggers cutting down trees, White came up with a solution to quickly alert rangers in the field. White found he could use the area’s good cell coverage and solar energy to power cell phones, repurposing them as listening devices.

In building his prototype, he gutted an old Android of all nonessential parts to limit energy consumption. He replaced the operating system with one that could work on any version of Android. Listening software and acoustical-analysis software were integrated, and cloud storage was set up. But harnessing enough energy to power his device became his biggest concern. “It turns out that 80 or 90 percent of the solar radiation that makes it through the tree canopy comes in the form of sunflecks,” White says in an interview with IEEE Spectrum. He focused his efforts to design panels made of recycled material to capture sunflecks.

He installed his prototype in the same area where he first encountered the illegal loggers in Indonesia. Logging sounds were detected within the first hour of operation, and responders were alerted and dispatched to the scene. After successful testing in Indonesia, word caught on and funding through Kickstarter helped launch pilot projects in Cameroon and Brazil.

At first, his phones listened for specific sounds like chainsaws. But he added machine learning, which could pick up more subtle sounds from an audio stream. Machine learning proved useful to identify sounds such as people’s voices, animal species, and gunshots in noisy audio that would be difficult to accomplish by other means.

Something Bigger Than Himself

White took an interest in computers at an early age, learning from his father, who was a computational physicist. White graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in physics from Kenyon College in Ohio. He became the web chief of ITER, the international consortium that built a nuclear fusion reactor in France. Later he worked for Enthuse as CTO, a startup that created a platform and apps for sports enthusiasts. National Geographic named White as an Emerging Explorer in 2015.

Skills and life experience have prepared White to take on one of the biggest challenges humanity faces today. He started a global movement and is helping to save the world one forest at a time. Learn more about Topher White and the Rainforest Connection at rfcx.org.