Can drones plant trees? Former NASA scientist says yes.

BioCarbon Engineering hopes to plant 1 billion trees each year in order to counter deforestation. Are drones the answer to restoring the planet's natural vegetation?

Kevin Sielaff/AP
This photo taken April 22, 2015, shows the intersection of Jordan Road and Martin Road in Woodland, Mich, and the banks of the Little Thornapple River which suffer from deforestation. A 13 mile stretch of the river, from North Charlton Park Road up to Jordan Lake, is riddled with debris and fallen trees. An investigation, being headed by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), is underway in an attempt to rectify the environmental damage.

With 46 to 58 thousand square miles of forest destroyed each year – the equivalent of 36 football fields every minute – deforestation is one the biggest problems facing the planet today.

However, BioCarbon Engineering, led by former NASA engineer Lauren Fletcher, is aiming to reverse the damage by planting one billion trees per year with drones.

"I'd been following trends on drones for the last five years," Mr. Fletcher told Wired Magazine. "Global deforestation is happening at an industrial scale. Governments and organizations are spending billions planting trees, but the standard method of hand-planting can't keep up."

Tree planting initiatives often rely on either hand planting, which is slow and expensive, or air dropping seeds, which has a low rate of success. Fletcher hopes that planting with drones will combine the precision of hand planting with the speed and cost effectiveness of air dropping. He also estimates that the drones will be capable of planting 36,000 seed each day in areas of the world humans could not penetrate.

BioCarbon’s planting method involves a three-step process. First, drones use mapping technology to create a 3-D representation of the area, which Fletcher and his team use to decide where to plant trees. Then, the drones are sent out again to do the actual planting. Lastly, drones will return to planting sites to asses the progress and growth.

To avoid the seeds blowing away or not taking root, as frequently happens with air-drop planting, the drones contain pressurized air canisters that provide the force necessary for the seeds to make their way into the dirt. The pre-germinated seeds are mixed with a nutrient rich gel and packed into a biodegradable pod.

In order to create drones that are capable of these tasks, BioCarbon has teamed up with with VulcanUAV, a company that designs and manufactures industrial drones capable of carrying up to 17.5 pounds.

"Our mapping drones track the topography and the soil types, and we work with ecologists to ensure that what we're planting is the right species,” Fletcher told Wired. “We want the highest yield proportion and to protect the biodiversity."

Fletcher plans to begin planting in the next year in either Brazil or South Africa, where natural forests have fallen victim to deforestation. Planting trees in these areas would make for cleaner soil and air, and reduce the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.

"The key is to make sure the trees grow properly," Fletcher said. "After that, we're hoping to dramatically lower the cost of planting trees so that we can inspire governments to invest in reforestation projects."

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