Re-Planting a Forest, One Drone at a Time


That funny little buzz you hear in the forest may not just be the hum of summer insects. In the near future it could be a small fleet of drones, coming to replant and restore forests that have been stripped of trees by industrial-scale deforestation.

It’s all part of an ambitious plan by BioCarbon Engineering, a U.K.-based startup on a global mission to battle widespread clear-cutting, which strips more than 26 billion trees off the planet each year. CEO Lauren Fletcher, who spent 20 years as an engineer with NASA, says the only way to fight industrial-scale deforestation is with industrial-scale reforestation. Their idea: plant 1 billion trees a year. The first targets are in South Africa and the Amazonian jungles, both of which have suffered from widespread forest eradication.

BioCarbon’s reforestation scheme is simple and efficient. Here’s a quick look at how it plans to deploy its drone fleet:

  1. Do a 3-D aerial survey.First, drones are sent to fly over a potential planting zone, snapping photos that create 3-D maps of the area to be reforested. The number of drones will vary depending up on the size of the seeding.
  2. Create a seeding plan. Once all that terrain data has been analyzed, it then generates a seeding pattern that best suits the terrain.
  3. Load the seed pods. The drones, which are equipped with guidance and control software, carry pressurized canisters of seed pods with germinated seeds immersed in a nutrient-rich gel.
  4. Hover and plant. Flying at a height of 1 or 2 meters, the drones follow the planting patterns, firing the biodegradable seed pods down to the ground. The pods break open upon impact, allowing the germinated seed a chance to take root.
  5. Monitor growth. After planting, the drones do low-level flights to assess the health of the sprouts and saplings.

Such “precision forestry,” as BioCarbon calls it, is extremely efficient. A farmer might hand plant as many as 3,000 seeds a day; Fletcher says his drones can drop up to 36,000 seed pods daily, often in areas where a human can’t reach. Working with local ecologists, BioCarbon will use the drones to spread a variety of tree species, as well as microorganisms and fungi designed to improve the soil quality. “The central focus is ecosystem restoration,” Fletcher says.

Fletcher sees the drones, which are commercially built by companies like VulcanUAV and then modified, as an important way for existing reforesting organizations to expand their approach. “There are some times when planting by hand is absolutely the right approach,” he says. “But, in other instances, the drones can be a very effective tool for the right location at the right time.”

The full implementation will have a team of two operators running seven or eight drones simultaneously. Planting at about 10 pods per minute will equate to roughly 36,000 trees per day for each team. With 100 two-member teams—BioCarbon’s goal in the next 5-7 years—it expects to plant 1 billion trees a year over roughly 500,000 hectares.

BioCarbon has funding from the Skoll Foundation and recently was featured in a Drones for Good competition in the United Arab Emirates. It plans to begin field testing by September, and its efforts can’t come fast enough. A new study published by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) says that the rate of tropical deforestation has risen by 62 percent between the 1990s and 2000s. One reason is that tropical deforestation has become more devastatingly efficient, notes geographer Douglas Morton of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “In the 60s, it was axes; in the 70s, chainsaws; and in the 2000s, it was tractors.”

The largest forest loss is happening in tropical Latin America, which clear-cut an average of 5,400 square miles per year from 1990 to 2000, according to the AGU study. Brazil topped the list at 2,300 square miles per year. Tropical Asia is also chopping down an average of 3,100 square miles of forest per year, with Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines leading the way.

Clear-cutting can have a devastating economic impact on the millions of families living near a diminishing forest ecosystem. “Haiti is 90 percent deforested; imagine what a difference it would be for everyone in that area if it was 90 percent forested,” Fletcher says. “By rebuilding forests, you not only increase the quality of the local water and air, but can bring jobs and products to a region.”

On a planetary climatological scale, Morton notes that “tropical deforestation plays a big role in global climate cycles,” claiming the accelerated pace of cutting and burning of forests accounted for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the 1990s.

Fletcher and his team want to help reverse that trend. “By planting at the scale we’re looking at,” he says, “we can make a real long-term impact. We hope to do a lot of good in the world.”


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