June 5, 2013 at 9:06 PM ET
If a tree falls in the (rain) forest, and no one is there to hear it (except illegal loggers), does it make a sound (or otherwise alert the authorities)? If you've installed phones all over the forest that listen for chainsaws, it does. And that's just what a new project to combat illegal logging in Indonesia plans to do.
Rainforest Connection is a non-profit organization that hopes to aid Indonesian rangers in their battle against illegal loggers. The country's rainforests are large and loggers can sneak in and take away acres of trees before aerial reconnaissance or satellite imagery shows it's being done.
What the rangers need is some kind of alert system that listens for the sound of logging and lets them know where it is. Topher White, who founded the San Francisco-based Rainforest Connection, thought that smartphones might fit the bill.
The idea is that smartphones would be spread throughout the forest, equipped with solar panels to keep them juiced. They wouldn't do much, but just sit idle with their microphones on, waiting for the easily recognized sound of a chainsaw to make its way through the trees. The phone or phones that heard the noise would notify a central database, and authorities could be on their way before the first tree hits the ground.
New Android phones will be used for the first deployment, in Sumatra's Air Tarusan reserve. But White hopes to later use smartphones that others have donated to the organization. There may even be an app to let people know what their old phones are up to.
"We want to make people feel like they are taking part in the dramatic events on the front lines of environmental protection," White told New Scientist.
With just 15 phones to cover nearly a hundred square miles, the first run seems pretty bare-bones. But if such a low-cost program can help save even a few thousand trees, it'll be worth the cost — and may be adopted elsewhere.
Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBC News Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.