How Smartphones and Miniature Device Design Shape the Wilderness

By Neil Shurtz | May 26, 2020

Most designated wilderness areas are uniquely and specifically devoid of human development. But even these remote places can’t escape the reach of smartphones and other technologies.

Smartphones have become an indispensable part of everyday life as well as an important tool for serious scientific, educational, healthcare, and public safety pursuits. Early smartphones fused the functionalities of the personal computer and the cellphone and laid the groundwork for the transformation of the cellular network from encoding and decoding phone calls to becoming a primary vehicle for internet access. Today, smartphones are being used for backcountry management of geographies deliberately void of technology. In wilderness areas around the world, conservation managers use GPS-enabled smartphones to monitor the poaching of endangered wildlife, conduct wildfire containment activities, conduct search-and-rescue missions, and collect scientific data.


A Portable Wilderness Supercomputer

The miniaturization of electronic devices brought geopositioning via GPS and the Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) to early smartphones. Micro-electromechanical (MEMS)-based compass electronics like Asahi Kasei Microdevices’ AKM AK8975 (used in some models of the iPhone) provided magnetic azimuth data directly available to location services applications. Sensor-rich MEMS accelerometers like STMicroelectronics’ LIS2DW12 from Mouser fit into small package sizes such as smartphones and provide linear acceleration data.

As smartphones have evolved, these capabilities have increased. The combination of robust computing, advanced software, miniaturized sensors, and GPS capabilities have made formerly impossible backcountry geographic information system (GIS) projects a reality. Even budget-conscious local outposts of organizations like the US Forest Service, which administers the majority of formally designated wilderness areas in the United States, equip officers with lightweight smartphones able to tap into complex computing power, thanks to ruggedized, miniature connectors. Scientists can even use smartphones to control drones or monitor data from tracking devices they’ve attached to wildlife to gain additional information about wild creatures and spaces.

Protecting No-Tech with High-Tech

In the U.S., the Wilderness Act of 1964 established the National Wilderness Preservation System and instructed federal land management agencies, including the National Park Service, to manage designated wilderness areas. Uniquely wild among public lands, these areas are protected from human intervention; even government agencies are prohibited from using any mechanized tools, including chainsaws, in these places. However, the Act makes no provision for electronics. Although congress in 1964 could scarcely imagine Forest Service rangers and visitors bringing supercomputers into the wilderness in their pockets, the agency is now using these very tools to help protect the no-tech character of the wilderness.

Since wilderness areas are minimally developed and many areas are not served by maintained trails. However, for preservation and protection, a detailed accounting of where the public creates trails in the wilderness is a vital tool for keeping these areas undeveloped. While the pace of technology adoption for government agencies like the Forest Service is notoriously slow, the availability of advanced consumer electronics has allowed the agency to conduct highly detailed surveys of how the public is using wilderness areas. Local Ranger Districts can use consumer devices to gather the data that is most relevant to preservation activities.

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In 2019, the Forest Service carried out a GIS project to map every foot of public-created trails in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in Washington State. The wilderness is a short drive from the tech hub of Seattle and is the weekend retreat of many of the city’s high-tech workers. Visitation to the area has skyrocketed in recent years, in no small part due to smartphone-enabled geotagged social media activity promoting places like the remote, off-trail, glacial blue-green Jade Lake. This increase in visitors comes with an increase in trash, a need for sanitation, and a need for ranger presence. Detailed GIS mapping of unofficial trails helps local Ranger Districts have a better idea where the public is going and where to spend its scarce resources.

To carry out this survey, rangers are equipped with iPhone and Android GIS software that incorporates GPS, accelerometer, compass, and geotagged imagery data combined with user-defined attributes like trail condition to paint a highly accurate and cohesive picture of the wilderness’s unofficial trail network. Just a few years ago, software this robust was only available for desktop devices, but thanks to mobile hardware advances, rangers can use smartphones to measure and manage remote geography with minimal training.

Bypassing the Slow Machinery of Government

The Forest Service may be the last organization one would think of as being data-driven or high-tech, particularly in its backcountry field operations. However, while smartphone technology remains firmly in the realm of consumer electronics in its price, availability, and usability, the power of its hardware and the data it can provide makes it applicable for serious research applications. For the Forest Service, land use survey projects are critical, because saturation of smartphones among consumers means that data about the backcountry, including GPS geotags of photos, social media posts, and trip reports rich in geographic data, is drawing more visitors to remote and sensitive areas. This technology has created a massive land management challenge that, at the same time, also provides a readily deployable solution.

smartphones in the wilderness

Daily smartphone users get excited about new apps and the functionality they can offer us. Ultimately though, app developers must work within the framework the hardware allows, as much of the potential of the smartphone rests with component designers and manufacturers. The availability of miniature yet rugged connectors, sensors, processors, and transceivers for mobile use helps shape what app developers can build, and how smartphones will continue to shape the landscape of our world. We know smartphones have changed our daily lives, but they are also shaping the physical world as we use these tools to explore and protect it. Even the most remote wilderness areas are feeling their influence.

Neil Shurtz is a freelance writer based in Seattle. His areas of interest include sensor and telecom components, autonomous vehicles, and connected infrastructure. He is also a forestry technician with the U.S. Forest Service.

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