In 2018, a new definition of ‘natural disaster’ was ushered in, with wildfires reaching an intensity never seen before. Climate change is bringing about a new reality in which increasingly high temperatures and dry conditions are transforming our forests into a tinderbox, just waiting for a single spark to ignite.
We’ve seen this coming for a while, with scientific studies predicting it will only get worse. But 2018 has been a wake up call for many — fires in 2018 were 30% larger than in the past decade, and the devastation was significantly worse. Looking at California’s wildfires in the past year alone: record-breaking high temperatures, drought, and ill-fated construction in fire-prone areas led to incomprehensible grief and destruction.
The best way to combat these infernal flames is to keep global temperatures from rising — a.k.a. stop climate change. But there are other ways to help in the aftermath of these massive fires, and to prevent future fires.
DroneSeed, Seattle-based startup, uses drones in post-fire environments to combat the spread of wildfires and keep affected areas healthy. Using automation, founder and CEO Grant Canary has figured out a way to make the revitalization of our forests faster, cheaper, and more efficient.
Traditionally, the work of reforesting is done mostly by hand. Seedlings of native trees are nursed in greenhouses, sometimes taking more than a year to be strong enough for replanting, and are then taken out to the burn sites where they are manually replanted. Replanting requires precision: careful selection of native vegetation, surveying of planting sites, and multiple visits to check for invasive weeds and vegetation growth. Often a burned area is sprayed with herbicides from a helicopter to kill these weeds and then sprayed again with a grass or vegetation to hold a place for what could be a forest in the future. Suffice it to say, the work is labor intensive and simply not fast enough to keep up with the growing devastation. This is where DroneSeed comes in.
Founder and CEO Grant Canary got the idea for DroneSeed when he found himself at a loss for what to do next in his career and was told by a friend that perhaps he should just go plant trees. And really, why not?
“I started looking into how it’s done today,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s incredibly outdated. Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees. They’re being paid to move material over mountainous terrain and be a simple AI and determine where to plant trees where they will grow — microsites. We are now able to do both these functions with drones. This allows those same workers to address much larger areas faster without the caloric wear and tear.”
Using drones, the company is able to spray, protect, and plant with precision, in addition to surveying, monitoring, and collecting data. Investors were excited by the concept which involved automation, machine learning, drones and government contracts, and the team was able to secure funding from Techstars, Social Capital, and Spero Ventures, putting them at $4.8 million.
And so they got to work. Before the actual replanting, images are first taken with a sophisticated imaging stack and information is collected on the ecology, post-fire conditions, and terrain to produce a 3D map. A multispectral camera collects visual data, much of it outside of the realm of human detection, which can then be used for an analysis of the plants and soil. With the resulting map, the drones are able to navigate clearly and efficiently through the affected site, distribute herbicide in specific areas, and precisely plant the seedlings.
The drones themselves are ‘off-the-shelf’, according to the company, bought for the biggest payloads and longest flight times and are then significantly modified for their own purposes. They then write the software to fly swarms and manage payloads. DroneSeed is currently the first and only company in the US that is FAA approved for heavy lift UAS operations; approved to use drone swarms to deliver agricultural payloads such as herbicides, fertilizer and water; and approved to fly unmanned aircraft over 55 lbs. That’s pretty impressive.
The drones fly autonomously, as many as five at a time, and are supported by a team that is ready to load up the drones and there in case of any setbacks. Using set patterns and the pre-loaded maps of terrain, the drones are sent out to get to work. But they don’t just shoot out seeds willy-nilly, leaving them in un-optimal conditions. The drones use machine learning models, setting out to find various ‘microsites’ where the seeds will face better chances of survival. What’s more, the seeds are pre-packaged into small bundles, filled with nutrients, and covered in the chemical capsaicin to keep hungry creatures at bay. It’s this extra attention to detail which improves the odds of each tree’s future success.
DroneSeed already has several major contracts, currently working for governments, nonprofits, and private landowners in both the United States and Canada. This past year was evidence enough that wildfires are becoming a greater part of our reality, meaning we need to meet it with an even greater response. DroneSeed’s methods allow for larger scale reforestation and result in a more specific, data-driven understanding of environmental conditions. Plus, it’s exciting to witness the culmination of drones, artificial intelligence, and biological engineering culminating in something good.
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