All of my interactions with drones have been annoying. They're either interrupting an otherwise quiet scene with their incessant buzzing, or reminding me that even when I hike six miles into the woods (specifically for a break from humanity), someone is still watching me — from above, and probably taking pictures of me to boot. I consider them a gross (in both senses of the word) invasion of privacy.
Clearly, I'm not a fan of drones — until now. And it's because the nettlesome little buggers are finally doing something undeniably useful: replanting forests.
Near Banglalore, India, a 10,000-acre area in the Doddaballapur hill range north of the city, is undergoing a trial to see how well drone-seeding can work in deforested areas. The steep slopes mean planting by hand is next to impossible. You can see the area in the video below:
“What we have in mind is to at least seed 10,000 acres, and we will be doing this every year, for three consecutive years,” Professor S.N. Omkar, a chief research scientist at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore told Factor Daily. The scientists will keep track of where trees sprout up and compare it with where seeds were dropped, to determine what factors and which types of trees react best to the drone planting. Each seed is packed in a ball of manure to give it an advantage starting out.
“The advantage with drones is that we have the image before dropping the seeds, and can geotag the path. Subsequently, once every three months, we can fly over that area and see the impact of dropping the seeds,” Omkar said.
Fighting deforestation on multiple fronts
India is far from the only place where drones are being utilized this way: BioCarbon Engineering is a U.K.-based company that is looking to battle deforestation — which takes down over 25 billion trees a year — on a scale as large as the problem. A former NASA engineer, CEO Lauren Fletcher has a goal of planting 1 billion trees a year. And he wants to start in the places where we have all heard for years that deforestation has impact both locally and on the planet as a whole — the rainforests and jungles of South Africa and the Amazon in Brazil.
The goal is "ecosystem restoration," says Fletcher, who sees the work his company is doing as a way to counteract the incredibly efficient business of tree-felling, which has accelerated deforestation in recent decades.
Forested areas are incredibly important, both for long-term planetary health — trees both actively counteract increasing temperatures and also buffer topsoil, landscapes and rivers from the effects of climate change — and the humans who live in them. “By rebuilding forests, you not only increase the quality of the local water and air, but can bring jobs and products to a region,” says Fletcher.
Existing tree-planting schemes are not moving fast enough: “There are some times when planting by hand is absolutely the right approach,” Fletcher told Fast Company. “But, in other instances, the drones can be a very effective tool for the right location at the right time.”
Fletcher's company is now taking applications for its method, which has five parts: Mapping (to gather information about the area to be seeded); Seedpods, which are biodegradable and designed to help the seed germinate; planting a mix of seeds in areas pre-determined by the mapping in which trees will grow best; monitoring to ensure trees are growing according to plan; and data collection, which will enable the program to get smarter and more efficient over time.
Planting previously deforested areas isn't just about trees, of course. “In addition to giving a green cover, I want to bring back the birds, butterflies, as well as monkeys. I grew up with them. When I was a child, this was a lush green area,” Omkar of the Bangalore program said.
If this drone-seeding plan works, the verdant and fauna-filled memories of Omkar's youth could be made reality once again.