Could Drones Plant 1 Billion Trees Per Year?

A startup hopes to begin using drones for high-tech reforestation on a massive scale.

By on May 6, 2015

It seems like every week brings news of innovative uses for drone, or UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), technology. From Amazon's plans to use them to deliver consumer products to our front doors, to the use of camera drones in the film and TV industry, to personal entertainment, drone technology is capturing the imaginations of individuals and companies worldwide. One startup in the UK called BioCarbon Engineering looked at UAV technology and saw a way to solve a serious environmental issue: the massive deforestation of the planet. And they have an ambitious plan to use drones to plant 1 billion (that's "billion" with a "b") trees per year.

While aerial planting itself is not new — airplanes have been used to plant crops for years — BioCarbon Engineering says their system will result in much higher growth rates. "Traditional air-planting methods just carpet bomb an area and hope that the trees will take up," says BioCarbon co-founder Martin Tengler. "Drones are better than traditional aerial planting because they plant individual seed pods from only 1-2 meters above the ground into precise spots. This significantly increases the planting rate."

BioCarbon's system, Tengler says, works in three stages. First, they utilize satellite images to assess the surface features of the land, such as rivers, lakes, mountains, roads, and buildings, and to analyze the existing vegetative ecosystem and its biodiversity. They then use that information to make a plan for the areas to be reforested: choosing the best types of species, setting success criteria and estimating costs, and planning their second stage mapping campaigns.

The second stage, Tengler says, uses a mapping UAV to collect more detailed and close-up terrain data, including visual data, nutrient information, moisture content and photosynthesis rate. This information is used to generate high-quality 3D maps of the area to be reforested.

Finally, the third stage uses automated planting drones to plant trees. "These UAVs 'fire' biodegradable, nutrient-rich seed pods into the ground from a height of one to two meters," says Tengler. "The planting UAVs follow a pre-determined planting pattern generated for a specific area based on the mapping UAVs’ detailed terrain maps and data." Eventually, Tengler says, BioCarbon hopes to plant 72,000 trees per day.

BioCarbon's system also hopes to address one issue with aerial planting, which is ensuring the biodiversity of the ecosystem, rather than creating a "monoculture" of just one type of plant, which isn't really helpful to the environment. To ensure biodiversity and full ecosystems, BioCarbon says they hope to plant a variety of species, and include essential fungi and microorganisms to help create the most sustainable forests possible.

BioCarbon recently won funding from the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, and is currently competing for more funding from a variety of sources to build the infrastructure and teams it needs to scale this big idea. Tengler says BioCarbon hopes to start testing in the next few months in South Africa, with a goal to begin planting as soon as possible.

Tengler acknowledges that 1 billion trees per year is a huge goal. "It's a big number, but it's also a start, and a realistic number. We hope to plant much more when we get bigger."

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Tags: environment, technology, sustainability