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Drones to plant 15 billion trees

An Australian engineer is hoping to use drones to plant 1 billion trees every year to fight an unfolding global catastrophe. Source: ABC News

Deforestation and forest degradation make up 17% of the world’s carbon emissions — more than the entire world’s transportation sector, according to the United Nations.

Burned or cleared forests release their stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and land restoration experts say technology must play a big part in addressing the problem.

Dr Susan Graham has helped build a drone system that can scan the land, identify ideal places to grow trees, and then fire germinated seeds into the soil.

Drones can plant in areas previously impossible to reach, like steep hills.

The planet loses 15 billion trees every year and much of it is cleared for farmland to feed the world’s booming population, but it’s feared this could be exacerbating climate change.

“Although we plant about 9 billion trees every year, that leaves a net loss of 6 billion trees,” Dr Graham said. “The rate of replanting is just too slow.”

Now based in Oxford in the United Kingdom, she is working with an international team including an ex-NASA engineer who worked on the search for life on Mars.

Their company, BioCarbon Engineering, is backed by one of the world’s largest drone makers.

Bulldozers and tractors can clear land rapidly — and replanting efforts haven’t caught up.

Dr Graham is hoping to change that with a system that plants at “10 times the rate of hand planting and at 20% of the cost”, she said.

BioCarbon Engineering’s CEO Lauren Fletcher said the drone could currently carry 150 seed pods at a time.

“We’re firing at one a second, which means a pair of operators will be able to plant nearly 100,000 trees per day — 60 teams like this will get us to a billion trees a year,” he said.

Mr Fletcher worked at NASA for two decades on projects including the International Space Station and with robotic technologies used in the exploration of Mars.

“I worked specifically on the intersection between biology and engineering on the life-sciences programs on the Space Station, so this has given me a lot of knowledge of how you take smart, cutting-edge engineering systems and apply it to a biological system,” he said.

The firing drone follows a pre-set planting pattern determined from an algorithm, which uses information from a separate scanning drone. To work out the best possible place to plant, the team uses the drone to map the area, looking to create a 3D model of the land.

“The data gets downloaded and we’ve developed the algorithms that use that data to make smart decisions about exactly where to plant and how to manage that ecosystem,” Dr Graham said.

The team has tested its drone technology around the world and was recently in Dungog, in the New South Wales Hunter region.

This involved trialling their seed-spreading drone to rehabilitate land once used by coal mines.

This drone — while not as efficient as the firing drone — spreads seeds over a far wider area.

“Coal mines have an enormous amount of land that they need to restore, both on the active mine site, once they’ve recreated a land form, as well as their offset areas … around the mines,” Dr Graham said.