The world burns or cuts down about 26 billion trees a year. It replants about 15 billion. You can see the shortfall. At the moment, we're not planting trees quickly enough to combat deforestation—a problem with big implications for climate change.
That's why Lauren Fletcher wants to automate the process with drone technology. His startup, BioCarbon Engineering, plans to seed up to 1 billion trees a year, all without ever setting foot on the ground.
"The only way we're going to take on these age-old problems is with techniques that weren't available to us before," Fletcher says. "By using this approach we can meet the scale of the problem out there."
First of all, BioCarbon's drone flies above an area, mapping its level of forestation and reporting back on the potential for restoration. Then, the aerial vehicle swoops to 2 to 3 meters above ground and fires out a seed pod at sufficient velocity to penetrate the soil surface. The seeds themselves are pregerminated and covered in a nutritious hydrogel, giving them a higher chance of success.
Fletcher doesn't say the method is better than hand planting, just cheaper. He estimates the drone can plant at a rate of 10 seeds per minute. With two operators manning multiple drones, he reckons it would be possible to plant up 36,000 trees in a day. In all, UAV-seeding could be about 15% of the cost of traditional methods, he says.
BioCarbon, which is based in the U.K., won a Skoll Foundation award last year and was recently featured in a Drones for Good competition in the United Arab Emirates, where it showed off a prototype. It hopes to have a fully working product by the end of this summer.
An engineer, Fletcher spent 20 years at NASA before setting up the new company. He's now based in Oxford, England, with colleagues in several countries. He plans to work with forestry companies, nonprofits, and governments around the world.
We'll have to see how the drone-planting method works in the wild—there may be issues in getting the plants to grow. But there's certainly plenty of need for new trees. In remote, fertile places where humans rarely go, drones may be good enough for the job.