Replanting trees with drones

15 billion trees are cut down every year and wildfires burn down 840 million acres (340 million hectares) of vegetated land globally.

by Livia Formisani
03 February 2020
5 min read
by Livia Formisani
03 February 2020
5 min read

Those are just two of many aspects affecting the number of remaining trees in the world. In addition to releasing oxygen and capturing CO2, thus fighting climate change, trees also filter air pollutants, prevent mudslides and erosion, gather and purify water, protect us from extreme weather conditions and cool down urban areas. They are paramount to life and take time to grow, two factors making them a very precious resource.
Replanting trees — a process known as reforestation — is a long and complicated endeavor, as it is mostly done by hand. An important component of land restoration, reforestation helps recover degraded soils, rebuild damaged ecosystems and protect biodiversity. As governments on a global scale look to cut their carbon dioxide emissions and years of monoculture farming leave soils depleted of minerals and nutrients, restoration has become an economic matter as much as an environmental one. In fact, the restoration economy is growing, attracting at least $2 billions in private capital per year. New companies are entering the market, introducing technologies to restore land more quickly and effectively and attracting consistent investments.


Reforestation goes big: replanting one billion trees a year

Aiming to plant one billion trees per year, UK-based Dendra Systems is using an innovative approach to reforestation: drones. Lauren Fletcher, Dendra Systems CEO and former NASA engineer, started the ambitious project in response to increasing deforestation and its contributions to climate change. “I understood why forests were coming down so fast, but I was really puzzled as to why it was so hard to put them back together,” Fletcher said. He came to see hand-planting —slow, time-consuming and grueling work— as a major obstacle. As opposed to hand-planting, which typically puts 3,000 seeds per day in the ground, drones can disperse 36,000 seeds a day. “By planting at the scale we’re looking at, we can make a real long-term impact”, he said.

Guided by satellite images, the drones first perform a scan of the area to replant, surveying its existing biodiversity, topography and potential obstructions. Each drone then shoots seedpods into the ground, covering 2.5 acres (1 hectare) of land in 8 minutes, 150 times faster and 4 to 10 times cheaper than traditional methods. Compared to traditional aerial seeding methods by plane and helicopter, drones have a higher success rate, as they fly much lower, don’t move as much air and can work in inaccessible areas. What’s more, the technology can easily be scaled to cover very large areas in short periods of time.
Since starting commercial operations in mid-2017, Dendra Systems has executed reforestation projects in Canada, Myanmar, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. They are currently working in several other countries. And they are not alone: companies such as U.S.-based DroneSeed are following suit.

Welcome to the restoration economy

A 2015 study compiling the first estimate of the size of U.S.’s restoration economy concluded that it produced $9.47 billion in direct economic output in 2014, directly employing about 126,000 people. New technologies could increase these figures at an exponential rate.
“Broadly speaking, technologies are accelerating the speed, scale, and scope of restoration possible. There is significant untapped potential in large-scale restoration, and by investing in research and developing new technologies, companies are beginning to realize this potential in various ways. They do, for instance, by enabling lower-cost, rapid tree planting in inaccessible terrain, improving survival rates of planted seedlings, facilitating financial flows to restorative practices, and more,” says Andrew Wu, research analyst at the World Resources Institute, and co-author of “The Business of Planting Trees: A Growing Investment Opportunity“, a report examining 14 successful businesses in the restoration economy.
At the moment, some investors still hesitate to join in: many (but not all) opportunities in this sector require long investment-time horizons. This is also an entirely new, and risky, market. “One key aspect of the restoration sector is the lack of an established investment track record. Because the sector is relatively new, investors may have more challenges gauging the projected performance of an investment, and are likely to be more conservative in their evaluations,” said Wu.
The good news is that restoration initiatives are working, as the United Nations Environment Programme recently announced. In fact, the Global Landscapes Forum and the United Nations Environment Programme are currently seeking U.N. support to declare a “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.” In addition to that, initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge, which are bringing countries together to coordinate and guide reforestation efforts, are gaining momentum.