In this post, TRVST welcomes George Stacey, an environmentalist, author and CEO at Norvergence. Norvergence is an NGO based on New York working to raise awareness around climate change.
There is no doubt that technology is the biggest contributor to climate change but it also can act as a saviour when used in a pro-environmental manner.
Yes, you read it right! British Engineers have created a tree-planting drone that can plant 100,000 trees in one day.
Biocarbon Engineering, a start-up based in Oxford, has been using these flying machines to plant trees and grasses at abandoned mines in Australia and on sites in other parts of the world.
Irina Fedorenko, the cofounder of Biocarbon Engineering, said:
We now have a case confirmed of what species we can plant and in what conditions. We are now ready to scale up our planting and replicate this success.
Biocarbon is working with Worldview International Foundation, an NGO to replant mangrove saplings in Myanmar. To date, the organization has planted an area of 750 hectares, about twice the size of Central Park.
Biocarbon’s tree planting drones operated by skilled pilots, fly more than 300 feet over the land and collect a range of data points such as soil quality and topography.
Using this data and with the help of an algorithm, the best locations to plant trees are chosen. Subsequently, another group of drones follows the algorithm created map and plants the seeds accordingly.
Irina Fedorenko, co-founder of BioCarbon Engineering said:
“We can modify what to plant, and where, so you have the highest chance of survival. If you do aerial spreading–you just spread seeds wherever–maybe they hit a rock, maybe they hit a swamp, and they’re not going to survive. But we can basically control for that.”
In 2008, when a hurricane hit Burma, around 138,000 people were killed. Deforestation added to this loss or overall damage.
Bremley Lyngdoh, a board member at Worldview International said at the time:
“We are now racing against time to rebuild the green shield in order to protect the most vulnerable people living in the coastal zones before another massive storm hits them again.”
The foundation will also provide an incentive for people to take care of trees. Fedorenko added:
“The foundation wants to guarantee that after the ecosystems are restored, people have the incentive to actually keep it and care about it.
It’s all about creating livelihoods. We have to create jobs that are long-term that can sustain the family, then they see the benefit of the project, and they get engaged in the long term.”
Also, without human effort, the whole process seems impossible as workers prepare seed pods for the drones.
Lyngdoh explained this:
“Drones can’t plant trees without people on the ground trained to collect seeds and convert them into seed pods. Pods are then loaded by hand and fired from the drones.
The process will take time as it has never before been tested in mangrove swamp soils–so we need to train local people in all our partnering villages and build their capacity first before the drones are deployed on the ground. There is also government regulations and clearance that needs to be done, and this process takes time, as it has never been implemented before in Myanmar.
We also train local people to be drone pilots, Fedorenko added.
“And they want that. They want to be in IT. They want to process data, they want to fly drones, they want to do agroforestry, they want to do regenerative agriculture, they want to create vertical farms . . . they want to do all this cool stuff. It’s not the ambition to be a seedling planter for $1 a day.”
This project will definitely expand in an order to achieve the goal of planting 1 billion trees. Fedorenko notes:
“If [it can be] financially sustainable…that will be huge for pretty much all the tropical areas around the world. Every country that has mangroves will be able to replicate the example, all around the equator.”
“We need to restore [forests to cover] basically the size of India by 2030. It’s mind-blowing. At the current speed, it’s impossible. That’s why we’re innovating. That’s what motivated us in the first place.”
NASA veteran Dr. Lauren Fletcher who is also the founder of BioCarbon Engineering said that he very well understood the reasons why forests were coming down so fast. But the question that puzzled him was, “why it’s very hard for people to plant trees?”
He answered his question:
“I realized very quickly that it’s because the state of the art [method] at the time was really hand planters, people with a bag of saplings on their shoulder going out, day after day, and bending over every 15 to 20 seconds and planting a tree, and it’s really hard grueling work.”
When asked about the origin of tree-planting drone idea and his partnership with Fedorenko, he said,
"I saw firing saplings from drones is a potential solution to the problem of reforestation. I and Fedorenko spent almost six months pitching early iterations of an idea at various competitions and accelerators."
In 2015, their idea/concept was selected as a finalist for Drones for Good in a competition organized by the Emirate of Dubai.
The interesting part is, at that time they don’t have any drones.
After receiving funding from the Skoll Foundation and organizing committee, they made their first prototype.
In Paris, the prototype won the €100,000 top prize at the Hello Tomorrow conference. After that, they hired South African business school student Matthew Ritchie, an accountant who is now the company’s CFO and Susan Graham, an Australian biomedical engineer.
In 2017, they got their first break and restored a decommissioned open-cut mine in Australia. While concluding, Fedorenko said:
“We want to make the barrier to entry much lower [for companies]. Imagine you are Audi and you sit in Germany, and you think: Oh, let’s plant some mangroves in Myanmar. How do you even start? What do you do? Whom do you call? And here we come.”