Here’s How Drones Are Fighting Deforestation

Written by Megan Nichols

As populations grow and industry expands, we’re cutting down more of our forests to make way for housing, agriculture, logging and mining. We cut down an estimated 15 billion trees each year, and the earth has about half as many trees now as it did when human civilization started.

Technology and large industrial operations enable this deforestation, so why has the movement to fight it made such minimal use of advanced technology? A UK-based startup known as BioCarbon Engineering wants to change that. They’re using drones to restore the world’s forests.

A New Strategy for Fighting Deforestation

Before drones, BioCarbon Engineering says on its website, hand-planting trees was the main method for fighting deforestation. Compared to the technologies used by the industries cutting down the trees, this was much too slow. So, the company offered up its solution to the problem — using drones.

Since the company began, it has planted 25,000 trees in locations around the world. BioCarbon recently planted 5,000 trees in one day at a former coal-mining site in Dungog, Australia. It’s aiming to plant one billon trees per year and put a dent in global climate change.

How Drones Can Replant Forests

When seeking to replant an area, BioCarbon tackles the problem in several phases:

  • Mapping: First, the company uses drones to survey the area and gather information on its topography, soil type, current vegetation and any obstructions. The company uses that data to create a pattern for the planting drones to follow.
  • Planting: Then, drones carrying biodegradable seedpods fly over the area, dropping seeds according to the pattern. A drone carrying 300 pods can cover one hectare in 18 minutes and can carry multiple species of seeds.
  • Monitoring: After the planting phase is complete, drones periodically survey the area and record data on the progress of the seeds.
  • Data Analysis: The company analyzes the data collected in the monitoring phase using machine-learning algorithms to learn more about their progress and about the area’s ecosystem. They use this information to improve their patterns for future rounds of planting.

What Seed-Planting Drones Do Well

Could drones really provide a solution to the deforestation problem? The technology might not yet be perfect, but it does have many intriguing potential benefits.

Drones equipped with seedpods can plant trees much more quickly than other methods. It’s easy to see why using drones is so much faster than hand-planting trees. Drones may also be able to do the job at a lower cost. Rather than having to employ large numbers of people to go out and plant trees, an operation could just use several drones.

Drone’s information-gathering capabilities are also useful. They can fly over large areas of land, collecting many kinds of data and provide a more comprehensive view of an ecosystem. Some areas where trees need to be planted might be difficult to reach by land. Drones would have no problem reaching these locations.

Limitations of Drone Use for Forest Replanting

Some experts, however, have reservations about the usefulness of drones when it comes to fixing deforestation.

Drones can’t fly forever. They have limited battery life, which means they have to land every so often to recharge. Currently, many drones can only stay in the air for around 25 minutes at a time. This limits the amount of ground the can cover, especially when that land is remote. With time, the technology will improve enough that this won’t be a problem, but for now, it could present a challenge.

Some also worry that the drone strategy doesn’t address the big picture. It might solve the problem on the surface, but doesn’t address the root causes. Without social change, agriculture and industry will still continue to destroy forests.

Deforestation is estimated to be responsible for 15% of climate change. While not an insignificant number, replanting forests is only part of the solution. We’ll also need to address other issues —  such as how we get our energy — to stop man-made climate change, as BioCarbon says it wants to do.

Looking to the Future of Mitigating Environmental Issues

Replanting forests with drones might not fix all of our problems, but it could certainly be a huge step in the right direction. It’s a way to replant forests relatively quickly and inexpensively that all regions can make use of, even those that are difficult to reach. As drone technology becomes more advanced and this strategy for fighting deforestation gains more recognition, drones may start playing a role in fighting the destruction of our forests and climate change.

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