Brazil Turns to Drones to Spur Major Reforestation Initiatives

Brazil is the world’s latest country to turn to UAVs to launch a series of high-profile reforestation initiatives.  Drones can assist these efforts by conducting aerial surveys to identify devastated regions and then following up with precision spraying of seeds and fertilizer to stimulate new tree growth.  Drones are especially useful for seeding remote mountainous areas that would be more difficult to reach using field crews.  Drones not only conduct the work quickly and more safely and can also replace gas-powered road vehicles and helicopters that burn expensive fuel and leave a large carbon footprint.

The latest Brazilian project is being conducted near Rio de Janeiro, world renown for its spectacular beaches and lush surrounding hills.  A Brazilian startup Morfo, is collaborating with Refloresta Rio, the city’s reforestation program, to enhance the effort with AI-supported sensor technology and drone platforms.  The collaboration began on January 5th, with a pilot initiative in a single park land in the heart of the city.  If successful there, the project will commence full-scale deployment to surrounding areas and eventually nationwide, beginning next month.

There’s far more than seeding involved. According to Morfo, the process requires constant monitoring of reforested areas and ongoing management and data analysis, using 3D photogrammetry modeling and satellite imagery  Morfo’s custom dashboard system can track vegetal cover, biodiversity, and carbon stock in the re-seeded zones offering a comprehensive real time appraisal of the reforestation process.

The reforestation process unfolds in three phases, beginning with laboratory analysis of soil and plant samples to assess fertility.  Artificial intelligence is then applied to determine the best seeds to plant and their proper proportions across more than two dozen possible native species.  The actual planting is conducted by a single drone that is capable of dispersing 180 seed capsules per minute.  The final stage of the process is the ongoing monitoring and management, which can detect and remediate problems such as invasive species, fungi and weather-induced crop stress.

This is not Brazil’s first foray into drone-supported reforestation. The country has faced criticism for years for failing to protect the Amazon from deforestation resulting from unregulated mining, logging and slash-and-burn agriculture in the region.  In early 2021, the government announced a major initiative to plant 73 million trees, with drones slated to play a major support role.  In November of that year, the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR) began using drones supplied by China’s XAG to plant tree seeds at its experimental 5-acre farm – the first of several Amazon pilot programs.  Since then, Spain and a number of European-based drone companies have weighed in behind the Brazilian effort.  In addition, a US-based firm, employing drone swarms that can deliver 55-pound seed payloads, has been contracted to accelerate the reforestation efforts in previously identified areas of devastation.

Brazilian sources emphasize the need to collaborate with indigenous organizations in all reforestation efforts, to maintain a sense of community-based ownership and to take advantage of indigenous plant knowledge.  In fact, indigenous organizations have been using their own small drones for several years to monitor the companies that are causing the current devastation and to map the most deforested areas.  Morfu has a policy of combining its drone-based seeding with ground-based efforts conducted manually by indigenous groups.  It’s less cost-effective — about 25% of the seeding is done locally – but it has the advantage of employing impoverished rural workers and preserving the overall integrity of the effort, while allowing for more in-depth follow up.

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