The manual work of reviving U.S. forests after a wildfire is arduous and increasingly overwhelming, but a new ally in the sky is here to help.
DroneSeed, a 2-year-old startup presently operating across the Western U.S., is making headway in its mission to turn the skies above scorched wilderness into delivery highways for seeds, herbicides and fertilizers. The company recently became not only the first in the U.S. to gain federal approval to use drone swarms for agriculture purposes, but also the first to fly unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) weighing more than 55 pounds (25 kilograms).
For tree planters — one of the world's most strenuous summer gigs, in which workers may regularly expend the caloric equivalent of running a marathon — giving up the work to flying robots likely won't trigger much protest.
"It’s incredibly outdated. Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees," DroneSeed founder and CEO Grant Canary tells TechCrunch. "They’re being paid to move material over mountainous terrain and be a simple AI and determine where to plant trees where they will grow — microsites. We are now able to do both these functions with drones. This allows those same workers to address much larger areas faster without the caloric wear and tear."
According to the company, whereas an experienced tree planter can plant about 800 trees a day (or roughly 2 acres), one person with 15 DroneSeed drones could do the equivalent of 360 manual-labor hours in a single day.
The idea behind 'precision forestry'
Instead of just releasing seeds over burned areas and hoping for nature to take its course, DroneSeed UAVs first map the impacted region to determine the best sites for replanting. Using LIDAR (short for "light detection and ranging," the same technology leveraged by archaeologists to uncover lost civilizations), and a multispectral camera, the drones can collect data on terrain, vegetation and soil makeup in stunning detail. A custom computer program then crunches the data and determines the best spot for a young seed to sprout.
“Our drones are pretty neat,” Canary says in an interview with GeekWire. “They have the ability to deliver seeds or spray, but our best bet is on our ability to determine ideal planting sites down to centimeters, assuring tree survival and growth.”
DroneSeed's UAVs can also precision-spray herbicides to help saplings grow without competition from weeds, grasses and shrubs. For sites in desperate need of rejuvenation, this approach drastically reduces the decades or centuries of successional growth that bear a mature forest.
"Herbicides speed the process up by making way for the bigger trees right off the bat," Canary tells Crosscut.
You can see some of the company's heavy-lift drones, each capable of carrying 57 pounds (26 kg) of seeds, in the video below.
A spicier seed bomb
Once a drone has been given a location to plant a new tree, it uses compressed air to shoot a proprietary seed pod into the soil. According to TechCrunch, DroneSeed is pretty guarded about giving out details regarding these pods. From what could be gleaned, the seeds are packed into nutrient-rich, biodegradable pucks that are coated in spicy capsaicin to deter animals.
"The pucks, or 'seed vessels,' can and must be customized for the location and purpose — you have to match the content and acidity of the soil, things like that," TechCruch's Devin Coldewey writes. "DroneSeed will have to make millions of these things, but it doesn’t plan to be the manufacturer."
A business with serious growth potential
Although DroneSeed is still a relatively young company, it already counts the U.S. forestry industry as a major client.
"Since 2016, DroneSeed has worked with 3 of the 5 largest timber companies in the United States and served more than a thousand acres between survey and forest protection activities," the company's FAQ page proudly declares.
And it's not just convenience that DroneSeed offers. In an interview with MarketWatch, Canary says the business model also brings a “significant reduction in cost” for clients needing to plant trees.
With more contracts on the horizon, it's likely aerial robots will continue to carry a greater percentage of the estimated 1.5 billion trees planted annually in the U.S. Unlike other industries threatened by robotic innovation, this is one with broad appeal for conservationists, foresters and anyone who has ever had to plant trees for days on end in the summer heat.
"I've got time on this planet and I want to work on a problem that's worth solving," Canary tells Mashable. "And to me it absolutely makes sense to go out there and focus on the biggest thing that's threatening humanity. If the environment is not working, no social, political or economical system is working. So that's why it's so important to get in there and plant."