A novel approach to ecosystem restoration is coming from an Australian company: using drones to plant seeds.
There’s a novel approach to ecosystem restoration coming from BioCarbon Engineering, an Australian company that’s led by a Russian entrepreneur and Oxford student who is using drones to plant seeds.
The idea is to use the technology to plant trees in remote or difficult terrain, using the drones to essentially carpet bomb the seeds from above. One year after a September 2018 trial conducted in Myanmar, thousands of the tiny “seed bombs” have grown to half-meter-high mangrove plants.
In April, BioCarbon’s work was placed in the spotlight – again – as co-founder Irina Fedorenko and her startup team received a £40,000 (€46,100) prize in the Manchester Shell Springboard semifinal in the UK. The award followed other accolades, including the 2018 Ones to Watch list from Cleantech Group and Fedorenko’s opportunity to speak to the World Economic Forum in February.
“Being in Davos was like being in the center of the world for a week with all the global leaders, excitement and innovation,” she said, “but also sadly surrounded by unbelievable ignorance regarding pressing challenges such as climate change.”
The fight to sequester more carbon is a primary mission for the company because the planet relies on trees to remove carbon from the atmosphere and help keep the planet cool. Yet the trees also support environmental benefits of biodiversity and soil health, or coastal protections in the face of rising seas.
The BioCarbon Engineering strategy relies on the drones to combat deforestation, or wetlands damage as in the case of Myanmar’s mangroves. So far they’ve planted 38 species across temperate and tropical environments in the UK and Canada too, using a kind of seed gun that can fire two seeds per second into the soil below. For wetland regions there are special biodegradable seed pods that decompose, with their precious cargo and added nutrients firmly planted in moist soil.
In Canada, a field test demonstrated what BioCarbon Engineering can do with drones that can plant up to 400,000 seeds a day. It’s possible to make sorely needed tree planting 150 times more effective.
“Think of it as a smarter, higher-tech shovel,” said the company’s Lauren Fletcher in a 2018 interview.
Before the planting, the drones are used to create detailed high-tech maps of the terrain to ensure the optimal selection of seeds and the patterns for distributing them. “Natural planting patterns can be programmed in to the drone which records all planting areas carried out,” the company explains. That may mean planting more than one species in a mix that mimics what the intended ecosystem knows.
The drones offer an advantage on slopes in steep terrain, as in parts of Canada, or along sensitive shorelines. It’s an especially useful application for seeds used to restore mine-scarred lands to health.
The Myanmar trial at the Thor Heyerdahl Climate Park on the Irrawaddy Delta was a big success for the company. “We now have a case confirmed of what species we can plant and in what conditions,” Fedorenko told Fast Company. “We are now ready to scale up our planting and replicate this success.”