For the past five years, a group of villagers in the delta of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar has painstakingly planted 2.7 million mangrove trees in an attempt to begin to restore an ecosystem that has been disappearing for decades.
But the work is laborious, and the local nonprofit guiding the work wants to cover a much larger area–so they’re now turning to tree-planting drones.
The drones, from the startup BioCarbon Engineering, can plant as many as 100,000 trees in a single day, leaving the local community to focus on taking care of the young trees that have already started to grow.
Last September, the company will begin a drone-planting program in the area along with Worldview International Foundation, the nonprofit guiding local tree-planting projects.
To date, the organization has worked with villagers to plant an area of 750 hectares, about twice the size of Central Park; the drones will help cover another 250 hectares with 1 million additional trees.
Ultimately, the nonprofit hopes to use drones to help plant 1 billion trees in an even larger area.
The drone technology works in stages. As a first step, mapping drones fly more than 300 feet over the land, collecting detailed data about the topography and soil quality.
An algorithm uses that data to choose the best locations to plant trees, and the best species to plant.
Next, a second group of drones, flying low over the ground, automatically follows the map to plant seeds in custom, nutrient-filled “seed pods” designed by plant scientists to support each species.
Each drone can carry a mix of different species simultaneously. The drones fire the pods quickly enough to penetrate the soil.
The process targets locations for planting a seed within centimeters. “We can modify what to plant, and where, so you have the highest chance of survival,” says Irina Fedorenko, co-founder of BioCarbon Engineering, who initially connected with the founder of Worldview International at a conference.
“If you do aerial spreading–you just spread seeds wherever–maybe they hit a rock, maybe they hit a swamp, and they’re not going to survive. But we can basically control for that.”
It’s technically possible for a single drone pilot to oversee six of the drones simultaneously, reaching the maximum of 100,000 plantings in a day, though drone regulations in some countries require a pilot for every drone, making the process slightly slower.
The drones are at least 10 times faster than humans planting trees by hand, while the process can cost half as much.
In the U.K., where the test plots have been in place for more than a year, the trees are showing good rates of survival.
“[Survival rates are] definitely much better than spreading from a helicopter, which many people use,” says Fedorenko. “In some species, it’s comparable with hand planting.”
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