By Stella Mikhailova, MSc in Sustainability and Management, University of Bath
Tom is seven. He's staring very curiously up at a big drone hovering above his head in the London Science Museum. The black quadcopter Tom is so amazed by looks like a big toy that many children want to have. But this drone is not a toy. It's an ex-military drone, approximately 1 meter long, 40 cm high, and it's supposed to save our rainforests.
Lauren Fletcher is a former NASA engineer and Mars explorer. The idea to create a drone that would tackle deforestation around the world came to him from a science fiction book. Laurence's team, called BioCarbon Engineering, is repurposing ex-military drones to have them plant trees. BioCarbon Engineering hopes one day their drones will to plant 1 billion trees a-year and the results are already impressive.
In comparison to a more well-established technique--dispersing dry seeds by air--where an uptake rate is around 8%, a recent test conducted by BioCarbon Engineering in June of this year resulted in 75% uptake rate of the eucalyptus planted. The project team says their use of drones could reduce costs of the traditional methods by up to 85%.
"Hand-planting still remains the main planting method," Fletcher's colleague Irina Fedorenko, a PhD candidate studying geography and the environment at the University of Oxford, explains. "However, it is slow, expensive and usually requires people from disadvantaged communities to work in difficult weather conditions for a low pay."
The drone-planting method consists of three stages: first, one drone scans the landscape and identifies areas to be reforested, generating 3D maps for designing the most effective local planting patterns. Next the drones deliver pods filled with seeds and plant-nutrients to the identified locations by firing them out into the soil. Hydrogel added to each pod decomposes over time, thus providing nutrients for successful uptake. Irina explains that the team also hopes to seed in other species, including micro-organisms and fungi, which will improve the soil.
But there are still some concerns. Alan Watson Featherstone founder and executive director of Trees for Life, a conservation charity, commented to the museum that he is not sure that such a natural process as tree planting can be achieved by automated and impersonal drones. He believes that human interaction is necessary to ensure a proper planting process.
Another concern is more familiar to new technologies--some worry the drones might take jobs away from humans. But Fedorenko adds that they are currently targeting planting in remote or hazardous areas, such as those affected by fires or chemical spills. As Fedorenko says, there are types of trees that absorb contaminating elements, thus clearing the soil and making it suitable for further seeding.
The project has begun to attract some attention; in February, it was ranked 3rd in UAE's Drones for Good competition, put together by the UAE government to give out a $1m grant to the winning project. Since then, they have received funds for prototype improvement from Founder.org, an early-stage funding organization, and Hello Tomorrow, a startup competition. However, the use of drones for planting still has not been tested on a large scale and in the wild. And, as the team mentions, further fundraising is still an issue. The team says that if drones developed by BioCarbon Engineering get sufficient financial support and start being widely used, with the effort of 50 teams with 6 drones in each, BioCarbon Engineering might make it possible planting 1 billion trees a year. So far they have raised around 160k euro from various competitions, but this is not enough for large-scale planting. The company is looking to raise more funds from private investors. They might also start a crowdfunding campaign in a few months.
The drone is currently on display in London's Science Museum on view until the middle of December.
Lauren Fletcher, ex NASA engineer, displays one of his drones to be used for planing trees.