Environment

The Seed Missile Drones Replenishing the World’s Forests

Could Robots Be the Secret to Tackling Deforestation?

22.05.2019 | by Christy Romer
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Unsplash

Ever since Myanmar opened itself up to the world, the country has had a problem: Its coastal mangroves have been disappearing. Local and not-so-local populations have rushed to chop down the water-dwelling trees, receiving financial rewards and growing environmental problems in return — poorer carbon dioxide capture, dwindling fish populations, and decreasing protection against deadly storms and floods.

In response, the charity Worldview International Foundation set up a programme to help locals replant trees by hand. Over seven years of operations it’s had enviable success: More than six million trees have been planted, and another four million are expected to be planted by the end of 2019.

But recent estimates suggest that it’s too little too late. There’s a 350,000 hectare stretch of coastal mangrove forest in the country needing to be restored — equal to a total of more than one billion trees. At the current rate, it would take more than 500 years to fill the gap.

Enter Biocarbon Engineering, a startup with a grand idea: What if drones could do the heavy lifting instead?

The company has spent years working in abandoned mines in Australia and across the mangrove plains of Yangon, Myanmar, to discover the exact combination of species and environmental conditions needed to make seed-firing tree restoration a reality. And as of 2019, the company has succeeded, with seeds planted in September 2018 growing into saplings around 20 inches tall.

“We are now ready to scale up our planting and replicate this success,” the company’s co-founder, Irina Fedorenko, told Fast Company.

Its crack team of drones first fly over an area, assessing the best locations to plant each seed by collecting data about the layout of the land and soil conditions. They then fire already germinated seeds and nutrients into the ground, encapsed in a biodegradable pod.

It’s a delicate process, somewhat susceptible to tide conditions, but with the potential to empower communities to plant and protect an invaluable natural resource – in Myanmar and in other sites across the world.

In theory, two operators could work with 10 drones to plant 400,000 trees per day. Biocarbon Engineering has set out plans to upskill the local population, giving them IT training. “We train local people to be drone pilots,” Fedorenko added. “They want to process data, they want to fly drones, they want to do agroforestry, they want to do regenerative agriculture, they want to create vertical farms.

“They want to do all this cool stuff. It’s not the ambition to be a seedling planter for $1 a day.”

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