Industrial Reforestation

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I haven’t yet made peace with the notion of drone swarms in civilian life, whether they are for deliveries or photography or oil pipe monitoring or any number of ostensibly benign and useful activities. I suppose at some point I’ll just get used to them as they multiply, much like I did with the now-ubiquitous CCTV cameras.

However, this week I learned of a drone project that might soften my stance.

BioCarbon Engineering is a UK-based project that implements UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, to plant trees in deforested areas using what they call ‘industrial reforestation’ to counter the estimated 26 billion trees lost every year to logging, mineral extraction, agriculture, and urban expansion.

Now, the combination of the words ‘industrial’ and ‘reforestation’, used together with drones, doesn’t sound very much like it would add up to a tree-hugging approach. At least not at first. But…

The drones map terrain, the plant a diversity of tree seeds in a nature-based matrix. Source: BioCarbon Engineering

The drones map terrain, the plant a diversity of tree seeds in a nature-based matrix.
Source: BioCarbon Engineering

The 1 Billion Trees A Year project proposes a three-step approach using drones: a deforested area is first mapped, then seeded, and then monitored for progress.

The challenges of seeding deforested regions are many – but one of the most daunting is the simple act of seeding out new trees. Either the seeding has to be carried out by hand, or rather, many hands, or it is done by dropping batches of seeds from the air.

The advantage of hand-seeding is that the seeds can be inserted into the soil deeply enough that they can germinate and take root. But of course, large deforested areas require the re-planting of thousands, millions of trees.

Seeding by air allows for a large number of seed drops, but many of the seeds won’t ever get far enough into the soil to establish themselves, or they’ll be scattered before they can germinate.

The Biocarbon Engineering drone, with a pressurized cannister for injecting seed pods. Source: Biocarbon Engineering

The Biocarbon Engineering drone, with a pressurized cannister for injecting seed pods.
Source: BioCarbon Engineering

Operating at a height of 1-2 meters (3-6 feet), drones would be equipped with pressurized air canisters that can shoot seed pods far enough down into the soil to prevent scattering. The seed pods would be small units that contain a germinated seed, a bit of moisture, and a bit of nutrition to get the seed started.

Speaking in an interview with the BBC, CEO Lauren Fletcher said that the drones can be used to cover large amounts of terrain, and can use a variety of seed types to try and re-establish a forest with a similar pattern of biodiversity as the one originally deforested.

The drone-injected seed pods hit the soil and open to release a germinated seed. Source: Biocarbon Engineering

The drone-injected seed pods hit the soil and open to release a germinated seed.
Source: BioCarbon Engineering

I wrote recently about the reverence deserved by forests. This project seems to be a very 21st century method for encouraging that reverence.

The project was a runner-up in the United Arab Emirates Drones for Good – which included a number of other promising humanitarian drone projects that might just make me change my opinion about drone use – at least some of the time.

Deforestation in Borneo. Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay

Deforestation in Borneo.
Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay

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