Touchless reforestation

Drone technology is being used for tree-planting in response to afforestation and carbon sequestration needs, including use after wildfires. How might this change national forest management?

To quickly plant around a trillion trees—a goal that some researchers have estimated could store more than 200 gigatons of carbon—Flash Forest argues that new technology is needed. In North America, trees need to grow 10-20 years before they efficiently store carbon, so to address climate change by midcentury, trees need to begin growing as quickly as possible now. “I think that drones are absolutely necessary to hit the kind of targets that we’re saying are necessary to achieve some of our carbon sequestration goals as a global society,” she says.

But to restore forests that have already been lost, the drones can work more quickly and cheaply than humans planting with shovels. Flash Forest’s tech can currently plant 10,000 to 20,000 seed pods a day; as the technology advances, a pair of pilots will be able to plant 100,000 trees in a day (by hand, someone might typically be able to plant around 1,500 trees in a day, Ahlstrom says.) The company aims to bring the cost down to 50 cents per tree, or around a fourth of the cost of some other tree restoration efforts.

This has obvious implications for tree-planting crews, but how about something like salvage logging?  Other issues?

7 thoughts on “Touchless reforestation”

  1. The jury is still out on how well this process will work – some of the first trials of this in Washington State were done last fall with a different company – DroneSeed. Rodent predation of seed is always a concern, and “pods” (or “pucks”) with seed in them need to not dry out too quickly (remember from your tree-planting days that you should never plant trees in thick duff (organic) layers because that will dry out faster than soil?). For post-fire areas where safety is a concern or where road access is poor, these may be an option. But for places with rapid vegetation development, seeding may not be a good option to give the trees a head start.

  2. Of course drones are also banned in Wilderness areas. So yet another reason for anyone who supports active management of federal lands to resist the endless expansion of Wilderness designations.

  3. Interesting concept.
    Some questions –
    What data, if any, on seedling survival rate of drone planting compared to manual planting?
    How do the pilots “find” suitable micro-sites for planting (e.g. upslope of a log that can provide shade in a burned area) to increase seedling survival? Do they have that capability?
    What width of rotor clearance is needed for these drones? Could influence or limit their suitability for use in areas with standing dead or live trees such as salvage logged or burned areas.

  4. In central Oregon in the 80’s we did many experiments with tree planting. West side ideas were not transmissable to our situation.

    Don’t know if the work is still valid, but for dry sites we determined that carefully handled bare root 2-0 seedlings were best.

    Lots of experimentation would be needed for drones and seeds. Still, in places where one of the problems is no seed source perhaps it would be helpful before competing plants get established. Perhaps some kind of pepper coating to discourage rodent predation?


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