A San Francisco nonprofit is using a fascinating mix of machine learning and solar panel technology to help the fight against deforestation in Brazil. Rainforest Connection, led by founder and CEO Topher White, creates devices called Guardians that listen to the rainforest and send real-time alerts to combat illegal logging. White's startup places sensors high in the canopy of the Amazon Rainforest in Pará, northern Brazil. The devices are powered by solar panels and built using modified cellphones. Using machine learning and "bio-acoustic monitoring," White analyzes the noises recorded by the sensors, singles out these sounds, and pinpoints the location sent by the Guardian device.
Editor's Note: Rainforest Connection is using technology to protect the rainforest. For me, growing up in the 80s and 90s, the phrase "Save the Rainforest" was a directive that barely progressed over the years. The appeal was clear, but the threat was abstract and distant. And the solution (if there was one) seemed difficult to grasp. Since then, other worries--even harder to grasp in their immediacy and scope--have come to dominate our conversations: climate change, as an example.
Non-profit technology startup Rainforest Connection has utilized artificial intelligence to help monitor West Sumatra's rainforests. The tool, named The Guardian, uses Google technology called TensorFlow that can record sounds in the forest and send them to the forest rangers' smartphones through the Rainforest Connection mobile application. Rainforest Connection founder and CEO Topher White explained that the tool was quite simple. "Basically, The Guardian is a box containing a battery, used cellphone, voice recorder and solar panel. To operate this equipment, we put it on top of the trees, which allows them to record voices using its microphone and send it directly to the cloud using TensorFlow," Topher said in a statement.
Topher White set out to preserve Indonesian rainforest like that seen above by monitoring its sounds. Topher White spends a lot of time walking in--and thinking about--the forest, and how quickly we're losing it. So much so that he's gotten a black eye from being smacked by flying tree branches. But that's just a small example of what the engineer is willing to endure to stop global deforestation. Founder of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Rainforest Connection, White has developed a simple but ingenious strategy: using old cell phones to listen for the sound of destruction.
Like other protected forests around the world, Tambopata National Reserve in southeastern Peru is under constant threat from illegal logging. But with limited resources and just a handful of rangers to help protect the 1,000-square-mile reserve, authorities there have found it hard to catch loggers in the act. But last March, cleverly designed listening devices placed high in Tambopata's trees detected the sounds of chainsaws in the area and automatically sent an urgent alert to the authorities, who swooped in and arrested two men. "Without this information, what would happen is that you can never get the authorities in place by the time you need them there," said Luisa Ríos, a coordinator for the Lima-based Peruvian Society for Environmental Law. If the arrests were good news for the locals, they also represented a victory of sorts for the global environment.