Tree-planting drones to speed up reforestation efforts
Planting trees in remote forest locations is a slow, laborious process that still relies on humans with shovels to do all the work. DroneSeed, a company based in the Pacific Northwest, wants to drastically modernize that process by employing squadrons of drones to plant seeds, spray for invasive species, and monitor the tree growth process.
Forests are important for mitigating the effects of climate change, acting as carbon sinks that absorb as much as 30 percent of annual CO2 emissions. Logging can also be a means to sequester carbon, with wood products in some cases a substitute for fossil-fuel heavy materials such as concrete and steel. Either way, trees need planting, and DroneSeed works with both forestry companies to reforest logged areas, and environmental NGOs to combat deforestation.
In the case of timber companies that work about 7 million acres in Washington, the state requires successful reforestation of 190 healthy trees planted per acre within three years after harvest. Otherwise, a forest can take 100 to 300 years to rebuild naturally to its previous state, where mature, towering trees like Douglas fir are dominant.
But managing forests is difficult in places like the Pacific Northwest, with terrain too steep and rough for machinery to navigate. The drones could go almost anywhere in this region, 3D mapping the terrain and identifying micro-sites that give seeds the best opportunity for taking root and developing into healthy trees.
The drones would first apply herbicides to clear previously logged land of grasses and brush that would otherwise choke off young tree saplings. Spraying is currently done rather messily via helicopter, or through slow, laborious manual labor. DroneSeed's drones can carry an 11-liter container of liquid and spot spray within two centimeters of GPS coordinates.
Loaded with a batch of seeds, the drones would then fly to specified sites and fire a seed into the ground at a rate of 350 feet per second (384 km/h) using compressed air. According to the company, a drone could plant up to 800 seeds per hour, compared to 800 seeds a human can plant in a day, covering an acre (0.4 ha) of forest in 1.5 hours on a full battery charge.
Besides speeding up the process while drastically reducing costs, as most robots do, in this case the human labor it replaces is a good thing. Forestry and logging is a physically demanding job and one of the most dangerous on the planet, while such companies have had an increasingly difficult time finding and retaining workers.
The company is currently going through a permission process to be able to apply herbicides, and hopes to be up and operating sometime in the coming months.
DroneSeed provides an overview of the advantages of using drones for forestry purposes in the video below.
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This project is interesting. It may in fact have some useful application in very specific locations, with very specific types of planting mediums, growing conditions, and access challenges. However, the idea of this replacing human tree planters is simply ludicrous and unrealistic at this time. Yes, the data collection system is promising, albeit virtually useless for timber cruising under the canopy, but promising for other survey work indeed. However, the planting application remains science fiction for replacing human planters, at least in the northwest, and especially in the north where reforestation is of the greatest concern in this continent. Yes yes, we heard it before, old sci-fi is today’s technology or tomorrow’s…but let’s look at the actual real world limits of this high-flying idea today.
>>The drone needs to be able to "screef"- that is to remove the top layer of litter and branches that are in the way of where you want the tree quite often. Exposed mineral soil is rarely if ever the ideal planting medium. Most often the ideal planting site is not actually known until you screef. Does the drone detect rock just below the dirt? Does the drone remove the dry litter that will scorch the little seedling as it grows? Nope and Nope, didn’t think so. A shovel does though.
>>The drone needs to be able to select a microsite. You don't just plunk trees down at random, you need to select the right proximity to shade, moisture, competing vegetation, and other factors...ultimately a human needs to make this decision...if they do it with a drone or with a shovel, there is still a person deciding which trees go where. What is cheaper? Paying a drone operator, or paying a person with a shovel? That’s a rhetorical question, I think we all know the answer.
>>The quoted numbers about planters are manipulated to favor the drone. In BC for example, some of the most challenging planting terrain there is, planters routinely plant 2000 to 3000 trees in a day. In the flatter and prairie areas, 5000 to 6000 is not uncommon. I am guessing the drone can hit 800 per hour WITH SEEDS in perfect conditions....Simply put, I scoff at the idea of these machines, even years down the road, matching current planter productivity in even semi-technical terrain at anywhere close to the current costs of tree planting. The conditions and seeds issues connect to my next two points.
>>Most planting sites require SEEDLINGS not seeds. These are areas where the is short growing season with higher snowpacks and vegetation that continues to encroach (even after your special chemical washes away next week) . Not sure how this toy carries seedlings that weigh around 20 pounds per box of 300.
>>Browse protection? Did you know that there are animals in forests? Sometimes they nibble seedlings. To prevent this, humans install browse protection cages and mesh. Show me the drone that does this. It probably transforms into an alien robot named Optimus Pine. So yeah, in many cases, you aren’t replacing labour, just one little phase of it.
>>How does this fare in inclement weather. Guess what? There is weather! Rainy, windy, snowy, you name it. Tree planting HUMANS pound through it all. You need to plant seeds (and seedlings) at the right time of year, not just when it suits your drone. Often that time of year, it is early spring, the soils are just warming, and what else? It rains and blows in the spring.
>>Chemicals- don't even get me started here...but I will anyway..... It is a complicated and often ideological issue. I will seek to avoid the ideology here. Simply put, most seedlings do not require chemicals to thrive. Put in a good site, with a minimal amount of manual clearing, they will persist just fine, with nothing more than the residues from the nursery to protect them during their initial stage. Perhaps drone-squad wants GMO trees that are pesticide resistant, and to blast the cellular crap out of everything else in the forest, thus destroying the biodiversity that supports life in these areas. There are legions of not only activists but respected scientists that will tell you what a bad idea this is. Simply put, making this a central feature makes the progenitors of this product look ignorant. ALSO, spraying for INVASIVE species? What is this claim? How do they distinguish between invasive and non-invasive? Do they mean anything that is not a tree? The reference to invasive species is completely lost here, and seems like they just wanted to tag on some sort of green paint to make their idea sound more environmentally friendly than it is. Sheeeesh. Low opinion of the readership indeed.
>>FrankHodges- you suggest something reasonable. Been done. Didn't work well. You need to get spacing right, and precise depth of the seedling. Easy with fingers, hard with gravity. Also there are some unintended consequences....like animals with seedlings planted in their heads. It has some promise for very remote areas, but has simply proved impractical for widespread applications. Still, your idea is simpler and probably better value than the drone.
For the record, there are thousands of people that work as treeplanters both in the Pacific Northwest, including Canada and the USA. These are hardworking people, that utilize a tremendous amount of dexterity and skill in their jobs. For some reasons, there is always another tech-nerd who thinks they can replace this seemingly mundane job with a new gadget, without appreciating or understanding what is already being done. Last planting device I saw was a silly tractor device that would work only on a farmer’s field. This drone one really is interesting, and has some promise for limited applications, but the pushers are either out of touch with the realities of silviculture, or simply are looking to paint a twisted picture to get someone to provide them with millions of dollars.
Human planters often carry multiple species, decide which specific soils to place them in, prepare the site according to specific instructions, and insert the seedling in a very precise manner according to the client's needs. They do this for anywhere from 6 cents to 50 cents a tree, ranging from flat fields of dirt, to mountainous rocky terrain covered in slash (broken logs and waste wood) and vegetation so thick that even a T-1000 couldn't get through it, let alone a dinky little Radio-Shak RC toy.
So WHERE might this work. I’m not ruling drones out altogether, but I think it is fair to consider where the idea has application so it’s place in forestry can be better understood. 1) In hard access areas with perhaps environmental or land access or wildlife issues that make human access is very difficult. This would be great. You go drone! 2) In areas with minimal I mean minimal slash and debris to clear. 3) In areas with prime growing conditions, and a minimum or seasonally recurrent competing vegetation AND seasonal conditions that together make planting of a SEED practical. 4) In areas with perfect soils that require no probing to locate ideal mediums. 5) In areas (or at times) with no wind and no extreme weather. That’s a bit of a list to live up to.
I should also point out the argument used by the developers regarding logging labour. Yes, logging is physically demanding and dangerous. But we’re not talking about LOGGING, we’re talking about tree planting. Tree planting sees lots of repetitive strain (read minor) injuries, but has nowhere close to the serious injury rates of logging, that the developers misleadingly allude to. For clarity, no tree planter deaths in BC between 2008 and 2016. None either in surveying work. Forestry deaths overall, about 20 +/- deaths per year. If they want to quote some actual data, I hope they compare it to other manual labour industries that are similar, not using logging dangers to exaggerate their claims. Second, the issue about labour, and physical demands. What exactly is wrong with physical labour. There seems to be some techno-geek allergy to this. Is labour poisonous? Look at the class structure, material wealth, and economy of this continent! For everyday people, it was built on labour! Labour is not bad, and the drive to replace it with machines should be focused on areas where it is truly dangerous for humans, and where human efficiency cannot keep pace. Thus far, the suggestion that drones will replace tree planters does not offer promise on either of these bases. Anyways, good luck to the developers, the other articles I read were really heavy on the future investment market for drone tech, so I guess that’s what they’re looking for. However, they do a major disservice in their convenient and skewed representation of tree planting when they make it look like such a sufferable unrewarding job so unfit for humans. Moreover, what this technology will ACTUALLY do, is potentially provide a way to cream out the easiest terrain for machines, and leave humans in the worst terrain to deal with the stuff the drone can't handle. This ultimately undermines the economic opportunities of people that rely on planting for work, and confines them to a more marginal and now more dangerous segment of silviculture operations. Your fancy technology will free people from some labour, to what other great job? Note to Mr. Canary…think about who you want to push under the bus, as you rush across the street to the bank. The techno hubris of this idea is no worse than anything else I have seen in my studies of industry. However, after planting over a million trees with my own bare hands, and building a pretty great life from it, this one kind of seemed worthy of a response.