Scientists may be hard at work on technologies that can draw CO2 back out of the atmosphere, but so far we are yet to improve on the tree for efficiency and cost. The future of our planet as a liveable and comfortable home for humanity may well depend on what we do with trees. Preserving existing forests ought to be top of the climate to-do list, with planting new forests right behind it.
There’s no downside to planting trees. As well as absorbing carbon, they clean the air, help to prevent flooding, protect the soil, and enhance biodiversity. They provide shade, habitats for animals, and food of various kinds. Harvested sustainably, they can also provide carbon neutral fuel and materials.
This week I came across Biocarbon Engineering on an episode of BBC radio’s Costing the Earth. They are a British start-up with one of the boldest ideas I’ve come across in a while, though I am sceptical about how deliverable it might be. They have developed a technology for rapid re-forestation, and they believe they can plant a billion trees a year. The vision is based on tree-planting drones.
The first step is to survey the area to be reforested, which is done from the air by a fixed-wing survey drone. Over a series of passes over the land, it gathers a huge amount of data about obstacles, suitable sites for planting trees, and which varieties would be best suited to each individual spot. A full planting map can be generated, and then a smaller set of drones take over. These fly close to the ground and fire seed pods into the soil, each biodegradeable pod containing the seed and the nutrients to get the tree started. Here’s a video showing the process:
There’s no doubt that ‘precision forestry’ is a clever idea. It’s quicker and cheaper than traditional forms of tree planting. Two operators supervise eight drones each, with each drone capable of planting 10 seeds a minute: they estimate that they can plant 36,000 seeds in a day’s work. The machines can reach places that humans can’t get to, giving better coverage. Drones can also be used to monitor growth afterwards.
A lot of questions remain though – how many of the seeds actually come up? Is the ground prepared in any way or do the seeds take their chances among the other plants? I presume the drones can’t come along afterwards and add rabbit guards. Have Biocarbon Engineering actually planted a forest anywhere, to prove the technology? So far there have been several awards won for an innovative idea, and no reports of field trials. All the commentary seems to be from people excited about drones and big data, rather than forestry.
It’s probably too early to say whether tree planting drones are going to happen or not, but Biocarbon Engineering aren’t the only ones out there. Canada’s Droneseed are on the case too. They also have more updates about funding and regulation than they do about numbers of trees planted or rates of success. So we shall have to wait and see. If it can be made to work, it could be a big boost to global reforestation initiatives.