Drones may help replant forests — if enough seeds take root

Researchers have identified 10 tree-planting drone companies as well as university research in India and government reforestation efforts in New Zealand and Madagascar. In Myanmar, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, drones have been used to help plant mangroves, a development potentially having a major impact, as the trees have been planted close to the equator. Capture more carbon than those grown elsewhere.

But the researchers said few companies have been involved in the success rates or research into how the seeds work after being dropped by a drone. They called on those involved in the drone implantation to be more open about their findings. They describe pledges to plant a billion trees a year as “propaganda”.

Mickey Mohan is a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley and lead author of the paper. He believes that commitments to plant a billion trees are largely promotional tactics by companies looking to raise money from investors. He said that half of the posts he saw on social media about drones planting trees were related to promises to plant a billion trees.

What really matters, he said, is the number of seeds that grow into trees after two or three years, not the number of seeds you can drop on the ground in one day.

The researchers cited a 2020 study by DroneSeed that found survival rates for some coniferous tree seeds to be between zero and 20 percent, similar to previous efforts to drop seeds from planes or helicopters in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Like other companies in the field, DroneSeed has declined to say how many trees it has planted so far. The company will not reveal the names of clients but says it works with three of the five largest lumber companies in the United States, as well as nonprofit conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy.

Last month, five-year-old DroneSeed acquired SilvaSeed, a 130-year-old company that is one of the largest private forest seed providers on the West Coast of the United States. For context, SilvaSeed grows more seedlings annually than the Cal Fire Reforestation Center. DroneSeed CEO Grant Canary told WIRED that the acquisition was motivated by the fact that the Climate Action Reserve, which tracks the environmental benefits of emissions-reduction projects, now includes benefits from reforestation.

“What we see with reforestation and carbon credits is that we are now able to capture land that has been burned and make sure there is a source of capital to reforest,” Kanari says.

In an effort to make drone-dropped seeds more viable, companies are applying machine learning And imaging technology to choose the optimal places to plant trees and guide the flight paths of the drones. The seeds are encased in granules made of ingredients such as clay and soil and sometimes fired into the ground. Each seed capsule is designed to contain the moisture and nutrients the seed needs to get started.

For example, DroneSeed includes chili to deter squirrels or other wild animals from eating their utensils, which are about the size of a hockey puck. How these seed tote bags are made varies. Some contain a single seed, but Dendra Systems says it can pack up to 50 types of seeds for trees, shrubs and native grass into one capsule.

Asked to comment on the publicity allegations, Flash Forest CEO Bryce Jones said the company still plans to plant 1 billion trees by 2028.

Dendra Systems, formerly known as Biocarbon Engineering, is one of the oldest and most famous companies using drones to grow trees. CEO Susan Graham said the company was built on the belief that the main reason humanity can’t slow down the decline in tree numbers is because we don’t use enough technology.

“You can solve the biodiversity challenge, you can solve the livelihood challenges, and you can solve the carbon problem at once, if you can do it at scale,” she said.

She declined to say how many trees the company has planted. She says environmental scientists are hired to verify results, and the results of their work are shared privately with clients. She says Dendra is now focusing more on the total area they can restore rather than the number of trees planted.

Lauren Fletcher, Dendra’s former CEO, says he came up with the idea to use drones to plant trees in 2008, and was one of the first CEOs to pledge the billion tree pledge. He doesn’t think any drone farming company has achieved that goal yet, but he thinks it’s still worthwhile as an example of the big thinking needed to tackle the problems of global ecosystem restoration.

“The truth is, people understand trees. They can see them, they can touch them, they can feel them, and they are very easy to sell.” Try selling soil microbes.

Fletcher is currently working with Irina Fedorenko, co-founder of Dendra Systems, on another company that aims to grow trees with small drones, especially for small landowners. Through a partnership with WeRobotics, Flying Forests wants to plant trees with drones in 30 countries. It is exploring projects in Kenya, Panama and Uganda.

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