Spotlight TEDx Talk: A new use for your old cellphone — detector for illegal rainforest logging

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TEDxCERN speaker Topher White installs one of his noise sensors in Sumatra (Photo: Rainforest Connection)

When physicist Topher White first spent time in the rainforest of Sumatra as a visitor to the Kalaweit Gibbon Sanctuary, he was captivated by the place, but not in the way that most tourists are captivated by a vacation. It was not necessarily the beauty of the landscape or the diversity of the wildlife that stuck in his mind, but — instead — a problem.

“[The people at the sanctuary] spend most of their time rehabilitating gibbons,” he says in a talk at TEDxCERN. “But what I didn’t realize when I got there is that they have to spend a lot of their time protecting their area from illegal logging that takes place on the side.”

He went for a walk with some of the sanctuary’s staff, and within five minutes, came across a group using chainsaws to cut down trees in the protected area, merely a few hundred meters from a ranger’s station. It was impossible to hear the chainsaws over what White calls the “constant cacophony of noise” erupting from the rainforest’s denizens — birds, insects, apes, monkeys – which makes detecting these activities very difficult, even with full-time guards patrolling the sanctuary. The incident stuck with White, and after he left, inspired him to take on the problem, using his background in physics and engineering to brainstorm ways to better detect logging activity.

What he came up with is this: a small, solar-powered device that is installed in the trees and constantly tracks rainforest din, filtering sound by type and singling out all chainsaw sounds. When a saw is detected, the device, whose control unit is made from old smart phones, messages White and associates via email and text, like a push notification on a smart phone app.

To learn more, watch White’s talk below:

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