Start-Ups

How recycled solar powered phones could save rainforests and change how the tech industry tackles climate change

Rainforest Connection is trying to stop illegal logging with recycled smartphones and mobilize the masses to make a global impact on deforestation and climate change.

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Rainforest Connection is trying to stop illegal logging with a solar powered smartphone communication system.
 Image: Rainforest Connection

An old cell phone is encased in solar panels, perched high in the tree canopy in the middle of the rainforest in Sumatra, Indonesia. It's constantly listening to the sounds of the forest -- the insects, the leaves, the wind, the hundreds of species of animals.

Inevitably, the phone will catch one more sound: that of a chainsaw, cutting down a tree up to one square mile away. The sound and location data is automatically sent to the cloud, and an alert is sent to rangers patrolling the forests who can stop the loggers in their tracks.

Stopping them could change the course of climate change. About 17% of greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation, according to the World Wildlife Fund. One of these devices protects enough trees from logging to prevent 15,000 tons of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere.

Rainforest Connection is the startup behind this project, and it was recently fully crowdfunded on Kickstarter, raising $167,000. The goal was $100,000. It's no $5 million like the Veronica Mars movie raised, but that's not the point.

The Rainforest Connection team is trying to do much more than just save the rainforest and decrease greenhouse gas emissions. They want to completely transform how we understand and use technology to solve global problems. It's an experiment, and so far, it's worked the way they hoped it would.

"We showed we had an idea that was not the run of the mill, save the rainforest -- because frankly, those don't get very well funded from crowdfunding perspective," said Topher White, co-founder of Rainforest Connection.

"We're trying to do something a little bit fresh, were trying to show our idea is accessible enough that you can explain it in a two minute video. Our point is largely to say they can become part of it -- streaming live audio [and getting alerts]. It's a totally new way of engaging with the rainforest."

Technology in the trees

A study by Interpolshowed that somewhere between 50% to 90% of logging is illegal, contributing to a multi-billion dollar black market for wood. According to the World Wildlife Fund, illegal logging is a major problem in the Amazon and Congo Basin, but it's rampant everywhere, from Canada to Latin America to Russia.

Illegal logging causes world timber prices to be 7% to 16% less than they should be, according to one report by the American Forest and Paper Association. The World Bank estimated that the global market loses $10 billion annually through illegal logging.

Though they only cover 2% of the Earth's surface, the world's rainforests are home to 50% of the animals and plants. A four-square-mile patch of rainforest contains up to 1,500 plants, 750 species of trees, and 400 species of birds, according to the Nature Conservancy. At the current rate, 5% to 10% of rainforests are lost each decade. As rainforests are destroyed, we sink further into a biodiversity crisis.

The idea for Rainforest Connection spurred from a trip White, whose background is in physics and engineering, took to Indonesia to volunteer at a gibbon reserve. At one point, not five minutes from the ranger station, there was illegal logging occurring, and no one was aware of it. Most of the monitoring relies on satellite imagery, surveying by people, or aerial drones, which are useful but often come after the damage is already done. But in this area with no running water, no electricity, and no real roads, there was cell phone service.

"This was the front of the game when it came to this one aspect, which was real time alerts on deforestations -- [so we could] build it without trying to engage new technology, just by using infrastructure that is there and technology we were largely throwing away," White said.

Using smartphones was a simple choice for White. More than 150 million are thrown away in the US each year, destined to pile up in landfills around the world, leaking toxins and polluting the environment. Most of these rainforests, no matter how remote they may be, have phone service -- or at least, enough to send data into the cloud and to the village nearby. And mobile technology as a whole is very robust and durable, so it offers a reliable solution for this problem.

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 Image: Rainforest Connection

Figuring out how to power the phone in the rainforest, under the shade of so much tree canopy, was by far the biggest challenge, White said. Rays of light only break through for a few minutes at a time. The team had to work for a year and a half to build the system, and the solar panel design for the phones ended up being the only new invention for the product.

"We wanted to avoid building new things and focus on things that already work [and] focus on things that can scale," White said.

The first tests have only used Android phones (some that are up to five years old) but White said they plan to use others in the near future. Through the Rainforest Connection website, people can find out how to send in their old smartphones. The team will retrofit it and use it for the cause.

The Kickstarter money (and subsequently, money that is donated through the website) will fund three pilot projects in Indonesia, the Amazon, and Africa in late 2014. Rainforest Connection already has multiple partners in these regions. This year they will also release the mobile app, which will allow users to listen to the sounds of the rainforest and eventually receive CNN-style alerts about illegal logging occurrences around the world.

"Our society is waking up to fact that there's no such thing as far away any more," said Dave Grenell, co-founder of Rainforest Connection. "We can no longer live under the illusion that the destruction of rainforests, which seems far away and not something we can impact...we are beginning to suffer the consequences of things happening in these places."

Bettering the system

The technology startup industry, specifically in San Francisco, has turned into a gold rush. The mentality is based on creating instant wealth and success in the shortest amount of time. Realistically, that's rarely the case, but with companies like WhatsApp being bought for $19 billion, it skews perception.

As frustrating as it is for White and other startups trying to raise enough money to build products that can have real, positive impact, there are lessons to be learned from the billion dollar valuations for companies like Yo and Snapchat. For one, it proves that the public's attention is worth something, and it's worth fighting for, he said.

Crowdfunding is a viable -- and inspirational -- option for many startups like Rainforest Connection, who would run into obstacles in the traditional funding system.

"There's slow money and fast money," said Grenell, who has a background in climate policy and government work. Slow money, he added, is NGOs, non-profits, organizations that require grant funding. Often, these have the right incentives, but there are many levels of oversight and with that comes a cost: loss of flexibility, time, and speed.

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 Image: Rainforest Connection

On the other hand, going the for-profit route, where money often flows faster, often means giving up control and allowing outsiders to derail the original mission.

Grenell explained it further: The first question for most institutions, businesses, and governments is not what the right thing to do is, or what is the greater good is, but primarily questions serving self-interest, he said.

"If you want to move towards a more responsible world of economic actors, [the] culture to change [requires] more role models in startup and business community," he added. "Then begin their decision making processes by asking what's the right thing to do. That doesn't mean you're going to give up all the other stuff, that just needs to be asked when making important decisions."

Idealistically, Rainforest Connection becomes a catalyst for this model. And for this startup, the question of "greater good" involves the international community. About 49% of their funding came from abroad, and the rest from the US. It was a crucial part of the campaign because the problems they're tackling -- deforestation, climate change, species extinction -- involve everything on this planet.

"Governments aren't going to solve these problems. We think it's really about creating the tools and empowering the people," Grenell said. "Crowdfunding campaigns show people really care about this stuff and they'll get behind it if we give them the opportunity to."

Also see

About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.

19 comments
mailforbhavani
mailforbhavani

will the agent be informed about the specific place of cutting tree??so that the agent need not search for the place

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

One thing this article doesn't mention as the reason why illegal logging is so pervasive is government corruption. These loggers pay the forest rangers, mayors, and governors of the towns where they cut. Even the so called environmental protection agency people are all in on the take. That's why no matter how sophisticated the technology, these loggers will operate with impunity as long as they pay everyone off.

enderby!
enderby!

It is important to stop the destruction of the rain forest. The forests are important for medical research, air quality, species, etc.  But as soon as this was tied to the climate change argument it lost me as a potential contributor. I do not want to contribute to the popularity contest proof of the global warming crowd. This idea would be good in the hands of a truly serious group.

*bernie
*bernie

BRILLIANT IDEA. I am always astonished by people's positive ingenuity. They are not just "Generation Y" (and X) - they are generation Love-Your-Planet. I love these articles.

butters71
butters71

Climate change is nothing but a computer model that has been wrong for the span of my life. Hence global cooling in the 80s became warming and now just change. I call it weather. If you can stop a chainsaw I support it, stop ammonia getting dumped into lakes, I am on board. I am just tired of these fantasies and frauds just to make people feel better about themselves. If you cant stop the logger all you are going to do is hear the trees fall. After you cut down trees so that you can build your cell tower to pick up microwaves that you have no idea what will do to the wildlife to listen to people you can't stop cut down other trees. Perhaps you should just stay home and make a hashtag.

bfunke
bfunke

The reason for the deforestation in Indonesia is that the farmers are trying to raise palm oil to satisfy the push for renewables in order to combat climate change. Trading one climate change driver for another. If the muckity mucks were serious about this climate change theory, they'd be pushing nukes instead of this renewable nonsense.

Poli Tecs
Poli Tecs

Hint!


You cant save the rainforest cause they are controlled by banana republic's unless you adopt a George Bush strateegery of imperialism but then you would be just like the neocons and we can have that.


You can't fix something that doesn't exist but in the vacuum of politics - climate change - an oxymoron more than science. 

yank
yank

I am not in favor of illegal logging by any means, but this plans strikes me as hopelessly quixotic. Illegal loggers will respond to "responsible agents on the ground" with a bullet in the head. To think ILLEGAL loggers will do otherwise is naïve in the extreme. - There's nothing wrong with attempting to stop illegal logging but this approach is, at best, foolhardy.

dsimp
dsimp

The moment you mentioned 'climate change' you lost me!

Edo Jacob
Edo Jacob

I backed this one... Brilliant Idea

Christy Ganger
Christy Ganger

I wouldnt:P lol, water kills signal (Scattered, reflected, refracted), so does solid substances like wood, rock, hills.. bit boggling, but wonderful they can get service. especially if its non line of sight that low to the ground (as the picture) the article describes at the tree tops, which would work wonderfully.

TheManlyGreen
TheManlyGreen

Actually, I would believe that cell coverage would be pretty good for what they need. Cell signals travel a long distance and are usually very clear if even far away but at a higher point of elevation, like up in the top of a tree. Furthermore, places being logged are near to existing forest edges and development (roads) because loggers need access to the places they log. This is also where you'd have cell service. Now, if they place their cell phones recievers deep in the rainforest, of course they won't have cell service but those areas aren't in danger... yet.

Love this idea for the fact that it reclaims e-waste and was crowd funded. Hopefully there will be a follow-up success story in six months to a year.

Bruce Draganjac
Bruce Draganjac

I imagine cell coverage in the middle of the rain forest is pretty good...

llandau
llandau

@butters71 while i do not see the alarm some see in the climate changing, nor do I see US HUMANS as the ones who caused it nor the ones who can stop it,  I do have this to say FOR climate change.  Were it not for climate change, dinosaurs would still be roaming the earth - with or without the "meteor" theory.   Were it not for Global warming this planet would still be in the ice age.

butters71
butters71

There has never been a problem in the history of the world that was solved with politics. But it sure has created many of them

TheManlyGreen
TheManlyGreen

Actually, I would believe that cell coverage would be pretty good for what they need. Cell signals travel a long distance and are usually very clear if even far away but at a higher point of elevation, like up in the top of a tree. Furthermore, places being logged are near to existing forest edges and development because loggers need access to the places they log. This is also where you'd have cell service. Now, if they place their cell phones deep in the rainforest, of course they won't have cell service but those areas aren't in danger... yet.

Love this idea for the fact that it reclaims e-waste and was crowd funded. Hopefully there will be a follow-up success story in six months to a year.

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