Saving the Rainforest One Alert at a Time

by Tony Albanese June 19, 2014 | 6 min read

Update 6/25/2014: Rainforest Connection recently launched a crowd funding campaign.

Every year ten of thousands of square miles of forests are being removed by illegal logging activities throughout the Earth’s rainforests. Rainforest Connection (RFCx) is on a mission to stop illegal logging and poaching by transforming recycled cell-phones into autonomous, solar-powered listening devices that can monitor and pinpoint chainsaw activity. RFCx is changing the game by creating the world’s first real-time logging detection system and making it possible for this all to work at scale using PagerDuty.

You might say that RFCx was accidentally founded by Topher White, a software developer, after volunteering in Indonesia and witnessing illegal logging firsthand.

During his time volunteering, he would frequently run into loggers illegally cutting down trees. Many times only a short 5 minute walk or few hundred yards from a camp full of guards whose primary responsibility was to stop illegal logging.

Today, even the best-equipped governments and NGOs that have invested in fighting illegal logging rely upon state-of-the-art drones or satellite surveillance to collect deforestation data. While these technologies have revolutionized environmental protection, and changed our understanding of the scope of the problem, they all have one important shortcoming: by the time environmental damage can be detected, it’s already days, weeks or even years too late. Topher and his team wanted to find a way to provide real-time data to make deforestation preventable on the ground.

According to White, deforestation is one of the biggest sources of the the carbon emissions that cause climate change. Every year deforestation is responsible for more than 17% of all human-caused CO2 emissions—more than all the world’s planes, trains, ships, cars and trucks combined. It’s also a primary reason for the highest rate of species extinction since the age of the dinosaurs. In order to combat this, a system was developed to alert nearby rangers that illegal logging was happening nearby so they could intervene.

“For many illegal loggers in Indonesia and around the world, there isn’t a real risk of being caught. They’re not hardened criminals, and they’re quick to back-off if interrupted. With real-time alerts, we can make it possible for rangers to arrive on the scene and ask them to stop before things get carried away. With no significant damage done, arrests and criminal charges could even be avoided.” – Topher White, Founder, RFCx

Scaling a Hacked System

Discarded Android phones are retrofitted with extra-sensitive microphones and connect to a cloud-based API used to identify specific sound signatures, such as chainsaws or even a monkey’s scream. Since chainsaws have a loud and unique sound signature that isn’t found in the natural soundscape of the forest it’s easy to detect the noise as an anomaly—even up to a kilometer in the distance.

Once a chainsaw is detected, rangers are alerted via phone calls, SMS, email and push notifications via PagerDuty with the location of the phone that was triggered. Rangers can then intervene and ask the loggers to leave. White noted that, based on their experiences so far, most loggers, when interrupted, are happy to oblige and leave the area.

In the initial testing of the system in Sumatra last year, within two days of implementing their system, they were already discovering illegal logging sites and immediately began saving trees in the area. At first, they were only using emails to alert rangers, but quickly discovered that email alerts alone were not sufficient. They needed to build a system for larger numbers of rangers to be alerted in the forest.

They had to keep in mind that most rangers have a smartphone and needed to be alerted on whatever device they were already using. That’s when RFCx found PagerDuty, which according to White, helped them skip months of development work in the field. Using PagerDuty they were able to go a step further and include a link in SMS alerts to show the location of the phone that heard the chainsaw. They can also listen to a recording on the sound to confirm what the sound is before trekking out into the forest.

“The most amazing part of PagerDuty, is that its not push notifications, or SMS, or a phone call, it’s any and all of those options at the same time. We don’t need to know what kind of phones our partners prefer to use, so this frees them up and eases our integration into their workflow. Also we can customize phone call alerts so before a ranger runs off to check a sound, we can send out an alert with a confirmation.” – Topher White, Founder, RFCx

Obtaining Energy Off-the-Grid

It goes without saying that the remote tropical rainforest is off-the-grid. There are no roads, running water or electricity. Despite this, the populations are very well-connected. Cell-phones use and coverage is prevalent—charged by generators once per day.

The RFCx team is able to use this cell-phone coverage to keep their system active 24/7, but the bigger problem to solve is power. To address this, RFCx had to design a special kind of solar panel that allows them to generate power even if the panels is partially obstructed from the sun due to vegetation in the area. Most solar powers become worthless when any part of the panel is obstructed and won’t convert solar to electrical energy. Because of their system, the solar panels are able to generate much more power than necessary to operate the phones so they should never need to be removed for charging.

What’s Next for Rainforest Connection?

RFCx is working to inspire people everywhere to take a stance on illegal logging and poaching by letting people listen live to the sounds of the rainforest, and when it occurs, deforestation.

“It’s no longer engaging for people around the world to read about huge areas being destroyed, but if you can listen in on the forest, and on the destruction as it occurs, people may become re-invested in pushing for change.” – Topher White, Founder, RFCx

White spoke about a future for RFCx, which expands beyond illegal logging, but includes the possibility of using this same technology to recognize patterns of animal distress based on their signatures.

Rainforest Connection was recently featured on BBC World’s Horizons episode on Extreme Recycling. To check it out click the screenshot below or visit:


Here at PagerDuty we are proud that our technology has been able to serve RFCx’s noble mission. To learn more, donate or get involved visit Rainforest Connection’s website: