Drones Are Used to Restore Wildfire Affected Areas– But Will It Work?

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Drones used for forest restoration

Every year when the summer months arrive and bring along warmer temperatures and high winds, dry landscapes become at risk of wildfire. In 2020 alone, over 10 million acres of land were burnt to a crisp because of wildfires.

Some trees, like sequoias, have heat-resistant bark and rely on wildfires to reproduce. But as climate change intensifies, the earth’s forests, even the sequoias, are having a hard time surviving the fire season. In 2021, during the Castle Fire in Sequoia National Park, Northern California, a study by the National Park Service found that about 10% of the world’s stock of giant sequoias was lost in a single roasting.

Cutting-edge companies are relying on their advanced drone technology to plant trees to help restore our forests. Flash Forest, Drone Seed, and Co2 Revolution are three companies committed to planting a billion trees or more in the coming years.

Planting Trees with Drone Technology

There is a lot that goes into planting forests with drones. Flight patterns, seed distribution, the speed in which the seeds hit the ground and wildlife all play a role in if the seeds successfully grow into trees.

According to Flash Forest, two drone pilots can plant 10,000 seeds per day. Comparatively, a person working by hand can only plant 1,000 seeds per day.

Drone companies use machine learning, AI and imaging technology to make dropping seeds more effective. They select optimal locations for the seeds to be planted, and guide drone pilots with premeditated flight paths. 

Each pellet is designed to have all the ingredients a seed might need to successfully grow. The seeds are encased in hockey-puck sized pellets consisting of soil and other nutrients. Dendra Systems packs their pellets with upwards of 50 seeds. Flash First even incorporates hot chilies into their pellets to ward off pesky animals like squirrels that may want to eat the pellets. 

If you are a fan of drones and the planet, it’s easy to support this high-tech strategy for panting forests. But the effectiveness of it all is still under debate.

Does Planting Trees with Drones Work?

Using drones to access hard-to-reach forest environments to plant seeds sounds like a good idea. But does it work?

In California, Drone Seed is the only company in the United States with Federal Aviation Administration permission to fly drones more than 55 pounds out of the line of sight. 

They use drones the size of washing machines to fly into burnt areas and dump seeds onto the forest floor. 

However, another question is whether the drone-delivered seeds turn into trees. Little data shows the seeds progressing from seedling to sapling and eventually tree. One study found that barely 20% of the seeds planted in CA in response to the Castle Fire ever took root. 

The lack of data, along with a seed shortage, are two obstacles that question the viability of drone-delivered seeds in wildfire-affected areas.

The Seed Shortage

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost every facet of daily life, including the seeds we use to restore burnt forests and plant vegetable gardens. 

Stewart McMorrow, the supervisor of Cal Fire’s Seed Bank, says it’s hard to test the viability of drone-panted trees because “the amount of seeds they need to make it work is not supported by the number of seeds that we have.”

Due to the pandemic, there was a surge in demand for seeds. More folks were spending more time outside and tending to their gardens. Seed companies struggled to keep up. To make matters worse, new health and safety protocols in response to COVID slowed down the packaging and shipment of seeds.

A study by the World Resources Institute proposed that the US can grow upwards of 60 billion trees by 2040. However, experts are now saying that in order to accomplish that goal, federal nurseries would have to double their current output.

The additional challenges resulting from the pandemic have slowed things down. However, the good news is that forest officials are working hard to ramp up seed collection and nursery production. Cal Fire, for example, in coordination with certain Tribal Governments,  wants to double their current production of seeds of 250,000 to half a million. 

Planting Trees and Carbon Dioxide Sequestration

According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, planting more trees is one of the most effective strategies to diminish the adverse effects of climate change on our planet.

The US Forest Service predicts that by planting trees on federal lands, we can reduce the Nation’s carbon footprint by 14%. On a global scale, scientists argue that there is enough room on earth to plant hundreds of billions of trees, which could reduce carbon levels by 25%.

Drones can play a vital role in that effort because of their ability to quickly and safely access remote areas for land that would otherwise be too cumbersome to work in with human labor.

The technology is there. But now it’s time to see if these companies can actually accomplish their lofty goals. 

The Future of Planting Trees With Drones

Planting trees with drones is no longer just a reactive measure in response to wildfires. Drone companies are now invested in planting trees for the sake of sequestering more carbon from the atmosphere and increasing the earth’s biodiversity. 

For example, Flash Forest has pledged to try and plant 1 billion trees by 2028. It’s unclear where the company currently is on their trajectory for accomplishing this goal. But it’s hard not to want to support the cause. 

Using drones to plant trees is the epitome of the advanced thinking and technological expertise that are needed to address some of the larger problems our planet is facing such as climate change. 

But how this potential solution deals with challenges related to acquiring seeds in the future is yet to be seen. Experts in the industry suggest drone companies begin to invest more resources into collecting seeds as well as continue to enhance their technology for more effective planting.

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