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Planting a Billion Trees Each Year: Expert May Use Drones to Make it Happen

May 12, 2015 04:13 PM EDT

Imagine, each year, an army of drones take to the air and head off for a tireless workday of planting trees in some of the Earth's most heavily deforested regions. Like an overnight miracle, one billion new saplings could be sprouting from the ground each year, helping mitigate the rampant tree loss that is harming our world. Now a retired NASA expert wants to make this dream a reality with his drone-powered startup company.

Drones aren't exactly new news anymore. They have long been infamous as the 'buzz from above' in war-torn countries, where US surveillance and even missile strikes are all lead by the unmanned aircraft. However, computerized quadcopters (about the size of a small hawk) - the kind of drones you strap a Go-Pro to - have also provided us some stunning footage of the natural world, ranging from close-ups of an erupting volcano, to the center of a tornado, to orcas at play.

And that's not all they can do. Conservationists have used military drones and quadcopters alike to help manage vast nature preserves, map and track the world's plastic pollution, and even protect our guacamole from invading pests and the diseases they carry.

Lauren Fletcher, a retired NASA engineer and the CEO of BioCarbon Engineering, now wants to apply this technology to the global reforestation effort, launching specially designed drones that could plant a billion trees in a year without touching the ground. (Scroll to read on...) 

[ Changing the world... One billion trees at a time from zee on Vimeo.]

"Destruction of global forests from lumber, mining, agriculture, and urban expansion destroys 26 billion trees each year (some estimates reach up to 70 b)," Fletcher and his team explained in the startup's mission statement. "We believe that this industrial scale deforestation is best combated using the latest automation technologies."

In other words, they are going to combat the consequences of industry using the innovations of industry.

So how will it all work?

According to the company, their custom-designed drones have taken inspiration directly from the only current ways in which trees are planted: by hand or seeding via air-drops.

Air-dispersing seeds sounds easy enough; glide a low-flying plane over a recently tilled field and let loose with a rain of seeds. However, this strategy has long had an infamously low rate of uptake, with incredibly small percentages of each seed-scatter actually resulting in germinating plants. It can even encourage the growth of trees right on top of one another, which is unhealthy for saplings competing for soil nutrients.

Planting by hand has long been the preferred choice, even for large-scale tree farming (fruit, rubber, etc). With enough people working at it, this approach can achieve some surprising numbers. (Scroll to read on...)

Just last week, for instance, Ecuador's minister of environment announced that she and 35,000 of her countrymen will be planting 350,000 trees simultaneously later this year. The act will break a preexisting Guinness record for Latin America that saw 10,624 people plant trees at the same time in the same place.

However, according to Fletcher, there isn't enough man-power to go around to have people planting thousands of trees every day. To achieve their billion-tree goal, the BioCarbon Engineering team has designed drones that fire pods containing pre-germinated seeds at the ground. As the sapling grows, the biodegradable pod breaks down, allowing for tree-roots to take hold in the soil.

The drones will also select where to fire each pod with the help of the same high-quality air and satellite mapping that NASA is using to help show ecologists where trees are stressed or gone in the wake of climate change, forest fires, and industry-driven deforestation. (Scroll to read on...)

Reseeding an Ecosystem

It's also important to note that BioCarbon won't be just firing trees in the ground wherever there's a patch of empty soil.

"Over the past few weeks we have repeatedly been asked one very good question: 'Are you creating plantations of uniform tree species or trying to restore ecosystems?'" the team wrote in a recent Q&A.

"The importance of this question cannot be overstated," they said. "There is a world of difference between just planting trees and restoring entire ecosystems."

It's not monocultures (evenly-space lines of one species) that they're after, but creating plant-life communities that can help entire ecosystems to recover from deforestation.

"Creating an ecosystem is not a trivial task," they added. "There are a lot of things to consider in the selection of species including the biodiversity and the quality of the soil matrix, location, water scarcity etc."

According to the startup, they are even working with ecological experts to determine what else should be included in each of their drone-fired seed pods, such as fungi and microbial life. (Scroll to read on...)

"Recent studies have shown that a restored jungle in Brazil that would normally take some 50 years to return to a near-natural state can be restored to the same state in about 7 years by seeding in additional species to increase the biodiversity," the team explained. "We are already thinking about how to help with that task which could cover millions of hectares throughout the Amazon basin."

Still, it's important to note that this startup is very-much just that, a startup. The drone technology is still in development, and it remains unclear which nations and organizations could help even get these drones (quite literally) off the ground. Still, it's an exciting idea, and one that I certainly hope can become a reality very soon.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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