Chainsaws Beware!

I see quite a bit of attention this week to Rainforest Connection’s project, repurposing discarded cellphones into solar powered listening devices, tuned to detect chainsaws and alert forest rangers to unauthorized logging.

This is very much in the spirit of “fix the world”, hacking up old Android devices, scrap photovoltaics, and adding some custom software. Plus, Topher White connected to the actual field workers, to successfully deploy the idea in the real woods. And, as they say, this is a twofer, protecting forests and cutting ewaste. Nice.

The thing that was most interesting to me is that there is actually significant technical innovation—not just recycling or “reusing waste is cheap”. Elise Ackerman reports on the significant work that went into making this work, starting with the innovative design to get enough solar power under the forest canopy. (Remember, you are competing with the forest, which has evolved for millions of years to become one of the world’s champion systems at catching all the solar energy available.) I’m pretty sure we will see this particular innovation in many other devices.

White also had to significantly hack the software, not only to strip out the consumer junkware, but also to create suitable detection software for his specific target. It’s not that no one knows how to do this, but making something that works autonomously on a small, low power, device took some work. Bravo.

I can’t help but think about version 2.0. For one thing, I have to worry about countermeasures. It would be good to beef up the software with some security and authentication. (I don’t know what the current software does, but there is almost always room for more security.) It would be a shame to have the system defeated by hackers, or subverted into false reporting.  Anyone who is willing to steal timber would certainly not hesitate to break up a monitoring system.

One also wonders if there is call for making this a bit more of a pluggable design. Perhaps the same chassis could be used with a device that monitors other sounds (e.g., healthy forest sounds), or the sounds of engines. So: a hardware bus and software API would let others create new modules.

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