Each year, the earth loses about 26 billion trees to lumber, mining, agriculture, and development. About 15 billion trees are replanted annually worldwide. It does not take an advanced math expert to see that an annual deficit of 11 billion trees is not a sustainable trajectory. We need trees. Enter drones. Best known in recent years for their military applications, and as a potential means of parcel delivery, remote-controlled drones used to plant trees could begin to equalize rates of reforestation with the current level of deforestation. That is the idea behind Oxford, England-based BioCarbon Engineering’s concept: counter industrial-scale deforestation with industrial-scale reforestation.
The Amazon rainforest, for example, the greatest single source of oxygen on the planet, has shrunk by 20 percent in the past half century, its disappearance aided in earnest by the opening of the Trans-Amazonian highway in 1972, which literally created the pathway for exploitation. While the deforestation of the Amazon has been slowed significantly since the mid-2000s, it is presently losing about 2,000 square miles (5,000 square kms) of forest a year, or nearly one million football fields.
To achieve its goal of planting one billion trees a year, BioCarbon is developing a fleet of drones that, if all goes according to plan, will engage in a three-step process of mapping, planting, and monitoring. Generating sophisticated 3D maps of the landscape, the drones can be used to determine precisely where to plant, and how much planting is needed to restore a forest. Then, hovering above the ground at between 2-3 meters, the drones use pressurized air to fire germinated seed pods into precisely targeted locations. Each pod is encapsulated in a “nutrient-rich hydrogel” that presumably feeds the seed until it takes root. Later, the drones can be used to monitor the progress of the fresh growth.
BioCarbon says that their system is better and cheaper. At a rate of ten seeds per minute, two drone operators could plant 36,000 seeds a day, according to BioCarbon founder Lauren Fletcher. Not only would the innovation be significantly more efficient than traditional planting methods, it can also be done at about 15 percent of the cost. “First, by planting germinated seeds using precision agricultural techniques, we increase uptake rates. Second, our scalable automated technology significantly reduces the manpower requirements and costs.”
A billion trees a year is not enough to bridge the staggering rates of deforestation, but it is an impressive start.
“The only option we’ve had previously has been hand planting, which is slow and really expensive, and just can’t keep up with industrial-scale deforestation,” says Fletcher. “We’re hoping that our technology is going to provide opportunities to really scale up the reforestation and replanting rates.”
BioCarbon says it plans to conduct trials by the end of the year.