Reforestation by Drone

Deforestation is a global environmental challenge but has hit the African continent especially hard.  Sierra Leone, for example, has lost 30% of its natural forest since 2000 alone.  Climate change and the effects of excess logging operations are largely responsible for the problem.  The national government, under pressure from the United Nations and other international bodies, is moving to reforest denuded areas.  How?  With drones.

Deploying drones to address the dangers of global deforestation is not new, but the number and scope of drone applications is expanding rapidly. One obvious use is the aerial mapping of deforested areas which used to be conducted primarily by satellites.  The problem?  Satellites cannot penetrate beneath the tree canopy and cannot identify deeper underlying issues that may be contributing to diseased tree foliage.  Drones can be programmed or remotely piloted to fly under the canopy to create the most accurate 3-D maps of an entire forest – and can do so in record time.

But once the problem areas are fully mapped, what then?  Traditionally, reforestation meant small fixed-wing aircraft spraying seeds over vast acreages or ground-based field crews painstakingly planting one sapling at a time.  The waste of seeds and fuel resources and dependence on pilots and human field labor has made these inefficient operations costly and time-consuming to say nothing of damaging to the environment and the cause of sustainability.  Now, as the case of Sierra Leone and other heavily deforested African nations illustrates, drones are planting seeds, too, faster and at far less cost.

Many of these drone seed planting programs are still being piloted, but already show great promise.  A good example is the partnership between the smart tech engineering firm CAL International and the Australian green tech company AirSeed Technologies.  With the help of artificial intelligence and advanced data analytics, AirSeed’s existing payload and delivery system has been modified to identify target areas for reforestation and to precision launch carbon seed pods at the ground at a rate of two-per-second.  The pods are activated during the rain, with rainwater absorbed by the carbon and allowing the seed to germinate.  AirSeed claims that a single two-person drone team can plant 40,000 seed pods in just one day, a phenomenal rate of efficiency that allows impoverished nations to leverage their limited financial resources for maximum gain.

But that’s not all.  The same advanced analytics technology allows the AirSeed drones to geotag each and every pod planted and to revisit the planted areas to monitor and evaluate individual tree growth at subsequent intervals.   The data collected can give the government and its technical team invaluable information on the kinds of soil and weather conditions that might facilitate or retard tree growth, allowing for improved planning and implementation of the entire reforestation effort.

Companies like CALSeed and AirSeed are highly sensitive to the demands of African governments for local “ownership” of their companies’ work.  The pilot project currently underway in northeastern Sierra Leone features a partnership between the national government, a not-for-profit organization Crown Agents and drone technologists, who are beginning the process of training local drone operators to ensure that the effort is eventually fully self-sustaining without the need for large-scale external support.   But effective technology-transfer is a long-term process.  In the short term, it is essential that the data produced be as precise and as rigorous as possible, as reliable estimates regarding annual yields are critical to outside investors seeking to size up the agricultural value and potential of reforested areas.

This is not Sierra Leone’s – or Africa’s – first experience with a drone enhanced land management.  The country is also deploying drones to evaluate damage to its coffee farms due to fungus and disease and to more precisely estimate – again, right down to the micro level – the fertilizer and pesticide needs of individual farms and farmers to enhance their annual yields.   Uganda, the continent leading coffee producer, is pioneering a similar effort.   For countries that are dependent on a single export crop or two to drive their trade earnings and overall economic growth – and most of Africa, still is –  drones are becoming a key fulcrum for improving the lives and well-being of millions of their people that might otherwise be left to suffer extreme hardship.

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