The fastest, cheapest way to curb climate change today

This article is by Topher White, the founder and CEO of RainforestConnection, a nonprofit tech company fighting to save the rainforests from illegal logging and poaching using cutting-edge environmental tech. He’s a recipient of the SAP Innovation Award Next-Gen Innovator (2018) and the Pongo Environmental Prize (2016). He was also a Draper Richards Kaplan Fellow (2016) and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer (2015).

Story Highlights

Rainforest Connection upcycles old cell phones into handmade, solar-powered listening devices with advanced AI to protect rainforests and help curb climate change.
The AI system lives in the cloud and can be trained to identify all kinds of sounds, from mechanical noises like chainsaws to the sounds of specific animal species.
The data can be used to help protect rainforests, conduct scientific studies, educate students and connect people and the rainforests via our smartphone app.

Every year, the destruction of the world’s rainforests releases more CO2 into the air than all the world’s transportation combined — that’s every car, truck, ship and airplane on the planet.

The good news is, while it could take decades to fix the transportation system, we can do something about the rainforests right now.

Rainforest Connection (RFCx) has developed an innovative approach to protecting the rainforests, one that’s helping us keep millions of metric tons of carbon out of the atmosphere today, while preserving indigenous communities and protecting wildlife for tomorrow.

It’s the world’s first real-time logging alert system, and not only could it save the rainforests within a generation, but it’s an incredible bargain, too.

How to save a rainforest with upcycled materials

The problem with illegal deforestation is that it’s a gateway activity to clearing rainforest — one of the primary causes of climate change, accounting for 17 percent of all global carbon emissions. It also causes global economic losses of $2–5 trillion per year, attributed to downgrading rainforest to pasture and less productive land use.

Since up to 90 percent of logging in tropical rainforests is illegal, according to the UN, stopping this activity would make a huge global impact. We’ve only become more certain of this approach as we’ve seen time after time that if you protect the trees, you end up protecting everything else.

So our solution started with the need to identify the sounds of illegal logging — like chainsaws and vehicle engines — among the constant cacophony of noises in the rainforest.

Topher White installing a guardian in the rainforest. Photo credit: Ben Von Vong.

Fortunately, everything we needed was within reach. We had plenty of dedicated people with a ‘we can build anything’ mentality, the ability to develop and improve our own software, and access to pretty good cell phone service, once we climbed high enough into the canopy.

To keep costs low, we decided to invent as little as possible. We developed a unique solar panel design and protective boxes that could keep the system working for years without people having to climb trees for maintenance. Then we put our monitoring software on some old cell phones, mounted them in the boxes and started testing them in the trees. We call these units ‘guardians.’

We built an AI system in the cloud that can be trained to identify all kinds of sounds, from mechanical noises to the sounds of specific animal species. When the system identifies sounds of illegal logging, it alerts people on the ground who can do something about it.

LISTEN to a chainsaw in the rainforest — audio picked up by Topher’s technology.

On the second day of testing in Indonesia, a guardian identified some chainsaw noise and we confronted the loggers. That was enough of a deterrent. They left and didn’t come back.

When people found out, some amazing stuff happened

As we began proving the effectiveness of this approach, word spread and so did excitement for the project, with many looking for ways to participate.

People started sending us their old cell phones with personal notes of support. It turns out that Americans alone throw away 150 million phones a year. Imagine all the guardians!
We built relationships with indigenous peoples and local rangers and law-enforcement authorities who can respond to — or provide forensic evidence of — illegal logging incursions.
Other parties interested in scientific studies also expressed interest, validating the usefulness of this approach for wildlife study and conservation as well as for curbing climate change.

The guardians we’re building today can hear chainsaw noises 1 kilometer in the distance, and each one monitors and protects 300 hectares of forest against illegal logging. While the guardians have already been deployed in ten countries spread across five continents, our medium-term goal is to cover another 4,000 square kilometers and deploy the system at 25 new sites within the next 12 months.

When we start a new site, we partner with the people who live there since they know the local environment best and how to deal with their local authorities. We always intend to continue monitoring an area once we start, for as long as our partners are willing.

The RFCx monitoring system gives our partners a solution for protecting key rainforest areas and responding to real-time alerts while also sharing large amounts of ecosystem data. This data can help people negotiate increased protections in these areas as well as provide scientific value.

Building the human-rainforest connection

Protecting rainforests can seem impossibly far away from most people’s daily experience. The tech itself has a human element to it — designing the guardians, hiking to remote locations and climbing trees to install the units — but people who can’t get involved in this aspect of the work need to feel like they can make a difference, and part of our job is connecting with them so that they can.

· Our app lets people listen to live streams or recorded sounds from rainforests all over the world. It has immersive, 360-degree forest views shot from the guardians’ perspective as well.
· We work with schools to get students involved building guardians, and to put more information about rainforests, renewable energy and ecological sciences into the curriculum. This can grow connections to the rainforests that will run through students’ entire lives.
· Our collaborative AI training platform lets anyone add capabilities to the AI, such as models to identify particular animal species for scientific studies. Within 24 hours of installing guardians at the Cradle of Humankind in South Africa, for example, the sounds of an endangered species were detected: a cape leopard and her cubs that no one had known were there.
LISTEN: Cape leopard audio recorded by a guardian at the Cradle of Humankind

Next, we want to democratize the data — to put it into more people’s hands for a broader selection of use cases — as well as get more field experience and make the tools easier to use.

Longer term, we’ll generate reports from our biodiversity and habitat monitoring that show trends over time, to draw the attention of stakeholders and funders. There’s no shortage of projects on deck or people who want to help us expand, but as with most things that are worth doing, more funding is required to meet the need.

We know it will work because it’s working now

This innovative use of existing technology — plus cutting-edge AI tools that anyone can use — empowers everyday people, citizen scientists, ecologists and others to help stop illegal logging.

Not bad for a bunch of old cell phones and a whole lot of passionate, determined people.

We are entering a new era of environmental innovationthat is driving better alignment between technology and environmental goals — and results. #FourthWave