Best Use of Drones Ever? Planting a Forest

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Drones can be a nuisance, but their capabilities can also be used for good. . (Photo: Tongcom photographer/Shutterstock)

I'm not a fan of drones — at least not when they interrupt an otherwise quiet scene when I'm out hiking — but this news may change my mind. Those nettlesome little buggers are finally doing something undeniably useful: replanting forests.

Here are two great examples.

Near Bangalore, 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 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 the best possible start.

"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.

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 said of the Bangalore program.

If this drone-seeding plan works, the verdant and fauna-filled memories of Omkar's youth could be made reality once again.

Fighting deforestation on multiple fronts

And this smart use of drone technology is spreading. BioCarbon Engineering is a U.K.-based company focused on battling deforestation on a scale as large as the problem. To put that in perspective, deforestation destroys over 25 billion trees a year. CEO Lauren Fletcher, a former NASA engineer, set out with the goal of planting 1 billion trees a year in the places where deforestation has had the biggest impact on local people and the planet — the rainforests and jungles of South Africa and the Amazon in Brazil. That's him explaining his passion for the project in the video above.

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.

Existing tree-planting schemes aren't 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."

The company's method 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; 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.

So, far, the BioCarbon Engineering program has been a massive success, according to Good.

A project started in Myanmar in September 2018 is seeing results. In an area the size of Rhode Island where trees weren't growing before, there are now thousands of 20-inch mangrove saplings.

"We now have a case confirmed of what species we can plant and in what conditions," says Irina Fedorenko, cofounder of Biocarbon Engineering. "We are now ready to scale up our planting and replicate this success."

Forested areas are incredibly important, both for humanity and long-term planetary health — trees actively counteract increasing temperatures and also buffer topsoil, landscapes and rivers from the effects of climate change. "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.