Upcycled smartphones to help fight poaching in Africa

25 June 2014
By Tereza Pultarova
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Rainforest Connection has developed an innovative real-time alert system for rain forests based on discarded smartphones

Rainforest Connection has developed an innovative real-time alert system for rain forests based on discarded smartphones [Credit: RFCx]

Each unit, consisting of a used Android smartphone and sensitive sensors and microphones can monitor one square mile of a jungle
The units listen to the forest and send out immediate alerts if they intercept suspicious sounds

The units listen to the forest and send out immediate alerts if they intercept suspicious sounds [Credit: RFCx]

The system is hoped to make a difference in nature protection as it provides a means of real-time monitoring of illegal logging and poaching

The system is hoped to make a difference in nature protection as it provides a means of real-time monitoring of illegal logging and poaching [Credit: RFCx]

The system can alert officials to illegal activities in the jungle faster than currently used aerial or satellite monitoring

The system can alert officials to illegal activities in the jungle faster than currently used aerial or satellite monitoring [Credit: RFCx]

An anti-poaching alert system based on recycled smartphones would be put to test for the first time in Africa this year in a joint project of the Zoological Society of London and a Californian tech start-up.

The system, developed by San Francisco-based Rainforest Connection (RFCx), is based on discarded Android smartphones and enables real-time monitoring of remote forests. It will be installed in Cameroon to help fight illegal logging and poaching. 

Each unit of the system has a smartphone in its heart and is fitted with highly sensitive microphones and sensors. Equipped with a set of advanced solar panels, the units can operate for years as the panels are powerful enough to provide sufficient energy even in the shady environment of the jungle. 

Listening to the sounds of the rain forest, each of the units can cover a square mile area, sending immediate alerts if suspicious sounds are intercepted. 

The system’s real-time monitoring capability presents a major improvement compared with existing monitoring strategies such as aerial surveillance or satellite monitoring, which usually only provide information about the situation in the rain forest with a delay of several days or even weeks.

“We think this could be a critical new tool for protecting large areas of rainforest. We’re excited to deploy it this year in collaboration with our local partners in Africa,” Chris Ransom, Programme Manager for ZSL in Africa.

Deforestation, directly responsible for more than 17 per cent of global carbon emissions, is a leading cause of climate change, according to the United Nations. It also contributes to the increasing rate of species extinction, something the ZSL and RFCx would like to avert.

“It’s clear that real-time awareness and intervention is a major missing piece in protecting the world's last remaining rainforests,” said Topher White, RFCx founder. “By using old smartphones and existing telecommunications infrastructure, we have built a system that we think could scale quickly enough to make a real impact."

Randy Hayes, Founder of Rainforest Action Network, Executive Director of Foundation Earth and a thirty-year veteran of rainforest conservation efforts, said of RFCx technology, “This is the most exciting critical new tool that I’ve seen that I think can help us get the job done.”

Each Rainforest Connection device installed is equivalent to taking 3000 cars off the road in terms of carbon mitigations due to averted logging activities.

RFCx tested the system in 2013 in Western Sumatra with promising results. 

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