How Do Tree-Planting Drones Work?

Last updated November 12th, 2019
The middle of a forest

With the environment suffering the brunt of human civilization, we have it all to do to keep our forests alive for present and future generations.

Enter drones.

At least one startup has heeded the call and is adding its shoulders to the proverbial plough by creating drones capable of planting trees.

The British startup, BioCarbon Engineering, located in Oxford, believes that tree planting drones could be the missing element needed to supercharge our reforestation efforts.

And it is not difficult to see why anybody would hold that belief.

According to experts at Worldview International Foundation, a non-profit that has been plating trees by hand across Myanmar since 2012, two operators working with 10 drones could theoretically plant up to 400,000 trees in a single day.

How Do Drones Plant Trees?

Drones capable of planting seeds are no longer a part of science-fiction. UAVs are already been used in the many parts of the agricultural cycle and this includes the planting phase.

Here’s how Biocarbon Engineering’s tree planting drone works:

The drones first fly over the chosen area to create a 3D map of it. This is a “smart map” that collects data including soil condition, topography, and other related data.

The control team uses data from this “smart map”, combining it with satellite data to create an algorithm for a unique planting pattern that works for that piece of land.

The drone then follows this algorithm when shooting biodegradable pods — filled with seeds and nutrients — into the ground.

There is no one-sized fits all approach to this method. Each tree species and piece of land requires its own separate analysis to determine the best approach.

The tree planting drones fly six feet above the ground and shoot the germinated seeds at a speed that will get them firmly embedded in the soil.

With BioCarbon Engineering’s system, one pilot could operate six drones, and each drone can plant up to 120 trees in a minute.

What are the Advantages of Using Drones to Plant Trees?

BioCarbon Engineering is just one out of a few startups that are looking to take advantage of the power of drones in order to plant trees. And this emerging trend is due to the many advantages that tree planting drones have over planting by hand.

Some of these advantages are:

Speed

A seasoned tree planter can plant between 2000 to 4000 trees per day, and that is commendable. That constitutes several acres each day.

However, tree planting drones dwarf that easily. A single operator can easily plant 120 trees a minute with a single tree planting drone. According to representatives at DroneSeed, a Seattle based startup that aims to use drones for reforestation, a single operator piloting 15 drones could cover the equivalent of 360 manual labor hours on a typical day.

All around the world, there are 300 million acres of trees that have been cut down since the 90s. In order to quickly repopulate such staggering sizes with trees, disruptive technology like tree planting drones need to be looked at.

Imaging

Satellite imaging has previously been used to analyze the soil before planting trees. These satellites have the advantage of being able to view land at scale, making it easy for tree planters to plan large scale campaigns.

But there is an added advantage that planters enjoy when they into incorporate drones into the analysis process the way startups like BioCarbon Engineering are doing.

Drones offer spatial resolution in much better detail than satellites can. And this helps with deciding the best way to go about planting. While satellites can spatial resolution in the range of 20-50 centimeters per pixel, drones top that with a few resolutions of a few centimeters per pixel.

Satellites are also not available all the time for imaging. They are times when they are limited by orbit coverage patterns. Drones on the other hand, can be deployed at any time and within a few minutes.

Access

In addition to being many times faster than human hands at planting trees, tree planting drones are able to access areas that are beyond the reach of planters.

By using drones to plant trees, areas like steep mountainsides or areas with contaminated soil can be cultivated without putting human beings at risk.

Scale

The speed with which tree planting drones work indicates a high possibility of scaling their operations.

The possibility of a having one pilot operating many drones to plant trees multiplies the effect which these devices could have on reforestation efforts.

Cost

Forestry companies spend millions recruiting the labor needed to make achieve reforestation goals. Drones cut those costs in several ways:

First of all, having one pilot operating several drones at a time, doing more work per drone than a human planter, greatly reduces the cost of planting. Personnel costs are among the highest which forestry companies typically have to bear.

Drones also plant seeds, meaning that no amount is spent on nurseries. Planting trees by hand usually requires growing seeds in a nursery until saplings are ready for transplanting. This costs money and man hours.

When using drones to plant trees, planters need not be restricted to only one tree type. Representatives at Seattle based DroneSeed say it is quite possible for them to load 80 to 200 different tree species unto their drones to plant on the same piece of land.

Maintenance

Using drones to plant trees goes beyond using them only at the planting phase. Drones can be integrated into every phase of the planting cycle.

They can be used in soil imaging and soil analysis, with the advantage that they are cheaper and more flexible that satellites.

They can be used all through the planting phase to deliver seeds to the ground.

They can also be used in the maintenance phase after planting. DroneSeed, for example, uses their drones to fertilize the trees they plant.

Where Are Tree Planting Drones Being Used?

Drone startups like BioCarbon are operating a wide variety of locations today. And the number of places looks to keep increasing as more governments wake up to the urgent need for reforestation.

According to Lauren Fletcher, founder of BioCarbon Engineering, the company already has projects lined up or already underway in areas like Australia, Brazil, Myanmar, Canada, Brazil, and the United States.

DroneSeed, another treeplanting drone startup is carrying out tests and planting trees within the US in areas like Oregon.

The one major incentive that motivates these startups to expand quickly is the impact which tree planting drones could have on reforestation efforts when deployed at scale.

Speaking in 2017, Mr. Fletcher said, “With our system, two people will be operating a small swarm of drones, and they will be able to plant 100,000 trees a day….If you get 600 teams working around the world, we will be able to plant a billion trees a year — and that’s a scale that makes a difference.”

And those are numbers that could make a world of difference.

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