This startup will use drones to map forests and plant trees at 1/10th of the usual cost

DroneSeed precision forestry drone
© DroneSeed

I, for one, welcome our treeplanting drone overlords.

An Oregon startup is working on the development of drones that can plant and monitor trees on a large scale, using "precision forestry" and high technology to jumpstart reforestation efforts in previously logged areas. While the basic approach of DroneSeed isn't a novel one, the company is looking to add a suite of forestry applications to its machines, with the intent of bringing "full lifecycle services" to forestry management, including mapping and monitoring, at a fraction of the cost of doing so manually.

Mechanizing certain aspects of industry has brought huge advances in productivity and cost reductions, such as the assembly line for automobiles, or the tractor and harvesting machines for farming, but DroneSeed's challenge is to apply similar automation to a decidedly different space - not acres of flat farmland, or the carefully engineered factory floor, but the hills, mountains, and valleys of the natural world. But with the advancements in sensor technology, GPS positioning, and drone components, this startup could help to bring forestry - a hugely underrated industry, in my opinion - into the 21st century.

"Forestry is 100 years behind in its adoption of automation- trees are harvested by massive machines, but replanted by hand and shovel. Our drones can go where machinery can't, and plant magnitudes faster and more cheaply than humans. DroneSeed's success means truly scalable reforestation." - DroneSeed

According to MarketWatch, DroneSeed's co-founder and CEO Grant Canary said that treeplanting laborers, who are responsible for planting some 1.5 billion trees each year in the US, are hard to find, not because the money isn't there, but because it's so physically demanding. "You have people who will turn down the jobs for lower paying easier work elsewhere. Not because they’re lazy, but because it’s so draining. It’s one of the hardest jobs on the planet."

But by using specialty drones, this treeplanting (or replanting of trees that have been logged, as is usually the case) could be done in much less time, with much less effort, and at a fraction of the cost - perhaps as low as 1/10th of the current cost. However, DroneSeed is still in the R&D and testing phase, so the validity of that claim remains to be seen.

Once its treeplanting technology, which is said to be "an air gun-like system that shoots seeds into the soil at speeds on par with a BB gun," is fully developed, DroneSeed believes that its drones could plant as many as 800 seeds per hour, compared with a human laborer planting about 800 seeds per day. This approach could do for forestry what precision agriculture did for food production, with the potential to increase reforestation rates and decrease costs. In fact, Canary made a direct comparison to the ag industry's advances with his statement that "We see drones as forestry’s tractor."

But reforesting areas isn't only about planting more trees, or more of the right trees, as there are significant pressures in the ecosystem that can make growing a forest quite a challenge, such as keeping invasive weed species that have rapid growth patterns from taking over the areas where new trees are planted. To address that issue, DroneSeed also has an automated answer, in the form of precision spraying, which is not exactly inline with the general vibe of TreeHugger, but which seems to be a necessary step in reaching the longer term goal of planting and nurturing forests instead of massive tracts of invasive weeds.

According to Crosscut, using carefully targeted herbicides to aid the growth of new forests can speed up the normal process of succession, which can take a century or more in some cases, by helping to eliminate the competition for space, light, moisture, and nutrients by other plants, in favor of the newly planted trees. DroneSeed has been running live tests (without using any actual herbicides) to show its potential customers, such as forestry companies, the efficiency of the drone-based systems, and is currently working to finalize its herbicide application permits.

This startup will use drones to map forests and plant trees at 1/10th of the usual cost
I, for one, welcome our treeplanting drone overlords.

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