Using custom-built heavy-lift uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), DroneSeed plants trees from the air wherever they're needed.
Drones are seeing increasing use in industry for everything from site surveys to last-mile delivery services, but DroneSeed is putting its custom craft to work on a different problem: rapidly re-seeding forests after a wildfire, while providing businesses with a way to offset their carbon emissions.
"DroneSeed was founded in 2016 with a mission of making reforestation scalable to mitigate the worst effects of climate change," Cassie Meigs, senior director of client solutions at DroneSeed, tells us. "No off-the-shelf aircraft or deployers would work, so engineers worked for several years to develop a custom-designed, heavy-lift drone platform, software, charging system, and deployers. The first prototype of the seed enablement technology using biomimicry was utilized in 2019. The next two years were spent refining the product and scaling operational capacity."
DroneSeed aims to make reforestation after wildfires easier, using heavy-lift drones to reduce the labor requirements. (📷: DroneSeed)
The resulting custom-built heavy-lift drones, which have approval from the FAA, are impressive indeed: eight feet in diameter, each has six rotors in order to lift and carry a payload of 57 pounds of seed vessels — proprietary mixes, which include both the seeds and the nutrients they require to thrive, helping to boost the likelihood that deployed seeds survive.
"Our proprietary seed vessels, called 'pucks' because they are shaped like hockey pucks, have a mix of nutrients, moisture-retaining substances, and pest repellents to give seeds the best possible chance of taking root," Meigs explains. "After deployment of pucks the DroneSeed team periodically visit the project area to monitor the germination and establishment of seedlings."
The idea is simple: when a wildfire has passed an area, survey drones with LIDAR sensors are sent to create 3D maps of the terrain. Data from the survey is then passed to DroneSeed for route-planning, which includes the identification of ground unsuitable for planting — dense vegetation that escaped the flames, rocks, roads, and the like. The drones are then deployed in swarms of between three and five, passing over the areas marked as requiring reseeding and automatically deploying the seed pucks from the air.
The heavy-lift drones carry "pucks" with seeds, nutrients, and pest-control materials. (📹: DroneSeed)
"Traditional hand-planting methods require manual labor, which doesn't scale easily," Meigs explains. "Navigating difficult terrain on foot by planting teams is one of the chief obstacles to faster post-wildfire reforestation. They're doing wind-sprints up and down mountains and each day's work is equal to running two marathons in caloric burn. Drones navigate difficult terrain faster than any person could."
"However, aerial seeding is just one tool in our toolbox, and will not take the place of seedlings or traditional hand-planting methods. For many of our projects we employ a two step process of an initial rapid response of seed vessels followed by interplanting with nursery seeding [from Silvaseed, DroneSeed's nursery] to ensure reforestation objectives are met."
Re-seeding after a wildfire is important, but can prove expensive. Here DroneSeed has a solution, too: using its technology to provide revenue from carbon offsets, sold to businesses in units representing the promised removal of one tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e) from the atmosphere.
"DroneSeed’s reforestation projects produce ex ante offsets, meaning buyers are paying for carbon removal that will happen in the future and don’t pay for work that’s already been done," Meigs says. "This is what 'additionality' means: the forests are pulling additional carbon out of the atmosphere that otherwise wouldn’t be removed. Revenue from these offsets pay for the high up-front costs of reforestation, as well as provide land managers incentive to reforest and manage the land.
The custom-designed seed pucks are deployed only on ground where they're likely to thrive, and followed up by manual planting where required. (📹: DroneSeed)
"There is no silver bullet to mitigate the worst effects of climate change," Meigs adds. "We need all hands on deck both to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and remove existing carbon. Offsets are key to the removal part, but they need logistical, semantic, and ethical improvements to work the way they are supposed to. DroneSeed is aware of the valid concerns surrounding carbon offsets, and the company makes sure that offsets the company produces are permanent, additional, and measurable."
More information on DroneSeed's reforestation work is available on the company website.