Drones are testing their reforestation skills throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Wildfires have burned almost 5 million acres of woods and grasslands this year. And climate change means larger devastation and longer fire seasons, with predictions of scorched land doubling by mid-century.
Restoring forests after the smoke clears remains a slow, laborious process, and seedlings can take months, even years to grow so they can be replanted. Can drones can speed that process up?
The standard practice after a fire is to survey a site evaluating soil conditions, strategize, buy seedlings, then plant the seedlings by hand, which can take years. Meanwhile, erosion is adding to an already damaged landscape. A forest service company called DroneSeed says they can survey and map a site in a couple of days time, and that one drone can seed half an acre of land in a single run.
"We have the potential to come in with our technology and begin seeding almost immediately and help," said Logan Ullyott from DroneSeed to Motherboard. "Obviously that's good because you can start to rehabilitate right away."
The promise of tree-planting drones lit up the internet in 2015, and DroneSeed, which engineers drones that spray herbicide and plants seeds, sped to make this a reality. By this February it joined TechStars Seattle, got temporary offices at the University of Washington, and lured Ullyott down from Calgary.
DroneSeed can move faster than many drone companies because it has a focused business plan. The company is not interested in selling custom forestry drones, the team wants to provide land surveys, herbicide spraying and tree planting services attached to tricked-out stock drones that are already built. So instead of developing new software for imaging and flight operations, it has a contractor coding workarounds into existing programs.
So far, DroneSeed has partnered with forestries in Canada and America, a public utility in Oregon. Ullyott doesn't often name names of his clients; timber companies are wary of publicity, and DroneSeed is wary of competition. But the company did introduce me to David Bergvall, a forest analytics manager at the Washington Department of Natural Resources(DNR), who has tested the product. The department manages 2.1 million acres of forest placed in a public trust, and sells timber and leasing land to fund schools and universities.
Bergvall said he was impressed by the aerial reconnaissance and spraying demonstration—simulated with dyed water and a tree stump—on the department's land. There were some glitches: displaced air from the drone's propellers disrupted the spray pattern and there were some other kinks in the workflow. But nothing that couldn't easily be fixed.
He also liked the quick turnaround of imaging data and, while helicopters or small airplanes won't be replaced, there's potential for drones doing limited aerial pesticide treatments."Our forest management is more complex than a private industry," Bergvall told me over the phone. "We have lots of pockets where you just have a hard time doing traditional applications."
Forestry industry chatter suggests aerial seeding isn't ready, not amidst the stumps and slash leftover from a timber harvest. But burn zones might be another story. Ullyott thinks that his company can speed up the remediation of charred forests. "I'm personally really excited about that," he said.
Quick replanting is crucial for habitats and budgets, but the slower process of using seedlings has a proven success rate. DroneSeed will need to prove itself by proving the viability of their seeds.
According to Ullyott, DroneSeed has more sophisticated technology than what Bergvall experienced. Their survey flights provide enough imaging data to create immersive 3D models of a site. Targets, whether invasive species to be sprayed or locations for seed pods, are added as geotags to the model. A flight plan is then drafted, allowing a drone to follow a programmed operation autonomously, or a small fleet of drones all pursuing individual targets.
They're grounded because bureaucracy changes slowly, kind of like a forest growing.
"The sticks and stumps and foliage that's left over after a clear cut can be pretty thick so when we've gone out and fired this through all of that stuff and it still gets an inch or two into the ground, it's been very cool to see," Ullyott said.
But despite promising tests, DroneSeed isn't ready to begin offering planting services yet, and they're unable to spray. They're grounded because bureaucracy changes slowly, kind of like a forest growing.
The FAA recently announced new regulations for commercial drone use. The rules state that a single operator can only fly one drone kept constantly within sight, which would limit DroneSeed from surveying, spraying or planting in the dynamic environment of woodlands. But DroneSeed can apply for waivers to run 15 drones over hills and behind trees as they plan. However, since there are no regulations for whether drones can spray herbicide, there's no clear path forward for them to perform their most proven service.
Ullyott said the company won't be able to start commercial spraying without FAA clearance. But they have been doing small demonstrations for customers, who are waiting with their signed contracts for the green light.
"It's somewhat complicated by the fact that we're a drone, and not something resembling a Cessna," Ullyott said.
Want more Motherboard in your life? Then sign up for our daily newsletter.