Drone test for replanting forests

The massive task of restoring land denuded by fires, drought or human activity might eventually be helped by swarms of drones that can plant almost 400,000 tree seeds a day. “There’s an absolutely huge, huge area across Canada in need of … reforestation activities,” Lauren Fletcher, chief executive of England’s BioCarbon Engineering, said after a recent demonstration of his company’s drone equipment.

“What we could do is make tree planters right now 150 times more effective … Think of it as a smarter, higher-tech shovel.” The device his team showed off at the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre’s technical development centre south of Ellerslie Road flies about three metres above the ground.

The machine uses pressurized air to fire capsules loaded with seeds and nutrients into the soil twice a second. Fletcher, whose company has planted about 250 hectares of disturbed land in England, Australia and Myanmar since taking the operation commercial last year, said the goal is to have one team operate a swarm of 10 drones at a location.

“If you got to 300 teams, that would get you to 10 billion trees a year, and that’s what we have to be thinking about if we’re talking about restoring global ecosystems.”

Dirk Brinkman, chief executive of Vancouver’s Brinkman and Associates Reforestation, said about 450 million trees a year are planted in Canada, most because it’s required after logging. But governments can’t always afford to deal with millions of hectares damaged by fire or other sources, so drones might be a cheaper, more effective solution, he said.

David Price, a Canadian Forest Service research scientist who arranged the display, said the main human seeding methods are by hand and by air. But good tree planters only place about 2,000 or 3,000 seedlings a day, while dumping clouds of seeds from an airplane is imprecise and few of them germinate, he said.

“With drones and the potential to map these areas at a high resolution, we see the ability to map the perfect (planting) spots.” As well, drones track each seed’s exact location, allowing a later trip to put out a small dose of herbicide around survivors so they can fend off weed competition, Price said.

BioCarbon staff will be at a five-hectare clear-cut site 40 km south of Slave Lake this week doing what Price thinks is the first drone seeding in Canada, and possibly North America. They’ll drop 2,500 pods per hectare, each containing two white spruce and one jack pine seed in hopes something will sprout. It will take a few years to assess the results, but if the process works well, it could provide new options for forestry companies and government, he said.

Photo: Greg Southam / Postmedia
Source: Edmonton Journal