Mass automated tree planting with drones is viable, says UK firm

A British engineering firm has sought international backing to develop its automated tree-planting drones, which it says have the potential to plant a billion trees a year.

Lauren Fletcher - Image: BioCarbon Engineering
Lauren Fletcher - Image: BioCarbon Engineering

Addressing an audience of policy makers, investors and industry leaders at the the recent UN Solutions Summit in New York, BioCarbon Engineering engineer Susan Graham said the world is currently suffering a net loss of 6bn trees a year.

"Last year's UN Climate Summit committed last year to restore 350m ha, or around 300bn trees, but we are not going to achieve that with our current planting techniques alone. How can we increase the planting rate while decreasing the cost?"

Explaining the Oxford-based company's approach, she said: "First, we fly over the land and take detailed images that tell us about nutrients, biodiversity and topology. We then churn that data through an algorithm to generate a precision planting pattern, which we upload into our quadcopter. This flies at 2-3m above the ground and fires a biodegradable seed pod at each position, which contains all the nutrients for healthy tree growth."

The company estimates that 150 two-person teams could plant a billion trees a year – ten times the rate of conventional planting at 15 per cent of the cost. "We are moving from the lab into the field in the coming months. But we need financing for large-scale field trials," Graham added.

The company's policy officer Martin Tengler told the BBC: "Five or ten years ago drones were still a very niche category and weren't very useful, but now they are able to carry big enough payloads, to be precise enough, and to survive in the air for long enough for this kind of approach to be start becoming viable. And as time goes on we count on technology progressing as well."

BioCarbon Engineering founder, former NASA engineer Lauren Fletcher, is among the speakers at the Automated Forest Restoration Workshop in Thailand later this month.

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