In part 1 of my CleanTech Talk with DroneSeed CEO Grant Canary, we talked about his path through schools in California, Italy, and Colombia, and his career-long focus on sustainability. He’s run climate-related business initiatives in Colombia, China, and the USA, and founded two climate action oriented companies.
In the second half, we get into specifics on how his company DroneSeed reforests incredibly rapidly after fires, saving money, turbocharging reforestation, and preventing recurring fires.
First off: the drones themselves. These aren’t the tiny ones you see in parks, or tracking extreme sports athletes, or doing stomach-turning acrobatics with POV cameras. These are workhorses. These are pack mules. Each drone is 8′ in diameter, over 2.4 meters. Each drone weighs 112 lb (51 kg) when fully loaded with 60 lb (27 kg) of seeds in protective pucks. They have six big props spinning rapidly to buzz them across often inhospitable terrain. They fly swarms of these brutes, up to five in the air at once, replanting acres in hours. And they fly them out of line of sight, which will make people familiar with FAA UAV and RC regulations very curious.
If they hit anything or anything hits them, both would suffer damage.
They are controlled by a team of two, one pilot and a computer operator. The pilot keeps his eyes on the skies, and the operator monitors where the drones are as they follow their laid down paths.
DroneSeed does multiple passes across the area to be reforested over a year. On the first pass, they drive out to the site with sensor-laden drones. They are coy about the sensors, but it’s lidar and multispectral imaging, which likely means solid-state lidar like the ones used for cars, as they are much cheaper, much more robust and much lighter, infrared and possibly others. They end up with informative 3D maps of the ground that tell them pretty much exactly what’s where.
They do this for two reasons. The first was foreshadowed earlier. Running one of these flying buzzsaws into a 2′ diameter tree branch will knock the drone out of the sky, and no one wants to have to get to a 100 lb drone a mile away over rugged terrain, and then have to hump back dozens of incredibly awkward lb. I’m sure it happens occasionally regardless, and I’m sure that the language from the team is colorful in such cases.
The second is obvious too. A bunch of land isn’t suitable for trees to grow on. Some of it is roads, whether paved or gravel. Some of it is already springing up as blackberry bushes, and the seeds will never get any sunlight. Some of it is bare rock. Some is too steep. So they mark up the 3D maps manually in third-of-an-acre (about 0.13 hectare) chunks, blocking off the places where they won’t drop seed.
As the first segment covered, early aerial seed dropping was from helicopters that created squirrel buffets, or from C17 with sabot-enclosed seedlings that were far from precision bombing. This is much more accurate and informed.
When they’ve marked up the exclusion areas, then they decide how many drones they’ll need, and create flight plans for each drone, trying to figure out how to do it most efficiently. Right now they aren’t doing any machine learning approaches to automatic identification of exclusion zones and flight paths, but they are thinking about it.
The second pass over the area is NASCAR pit crew time. Two people drive a truck out to the drone staging site. They unload the drones and assemble them. They set up the computers. They load the drones with 60 lb of payload, seeds in their protective pucks. And the drones buzz up into the sky, zip across to their preplanned starting point for the segment, drop the seed pucks at regular intervals, then buzz back.
Every time a drone comes back, the two people unload the empty seed puck enclosure, lock a new one in place, replace the battery as necessary, and send the massive drone on its way again. Then they pack up and go home, or at least to the nearest town where there’s a hotel and a restaurant.
A year or so later, they come back for a third assessment. They bring the sensor-laden drones again to ensure that their planting was right, to figure out what they could do better and to make sure that they meet the commitments they have to carbon offset efforts.
But they aren’t the only one to go back. Third party registered professional foresters come back to assess the site on foot following processes that were put in place in the 1920s originally. That’s a key part of the carbon offset certification program. They validate that the right mix of trees in the right density are starting to grow in the right places to achieve the offset outcomes.
This is precision agriculture on steep and rocky slopes where tractors can’t drive, and where human seed planters would burn two marathons-worth of calories every day planting seeds, as effectively as their personal motivation, professionalism and inspection regimen required. No flies on human tree planters — well, lots of flies actually — and I’ve known a few, but they are still human.
The drones aren’t. They buzz through the sky on electricity and they put things where the computer tells them too. They are tireless. They don’t get cranky. They aren’t thinking about the hot — and sweaty and smelly — planter one row over. They aren’t thinking about cold beer at the end of the shift.
But what are they dropping? They aren’t putting in the seedlings I planted 12,000 of one weekend a couple of decades ago in Ontario, on flat farm land on a tree-planting trailer being pulled by a tractor. They are putting down seeds. And seeds can dry out or get eaten by the aforementioned ravenous squirrels.
So the seeds are protected. They are encased in something I consider one of the most interesting innovations DroneSeed has come up with, pucks of biological material, a mossy, compressed substance with a seed or two in it. The pucks aren’t huge, but they are sufficient to protect the seed, to suck moisture from the air and ground and deliver it to the seed, and to keep the seed protected from most predators at least until it’s no longer a tasty squirrel snack and turns into a tasty deer snack.
This accelerates reforestation a lot. Drones drop seed pucks a lot faster than humans plant seedlings. Two people are doing the work of potentially dozens, and without 10,000 calorie a day diets.
But this isn’t making tree planters unemployed because the need for tree planters has been multiplying for the past few decades. A study was done that contacted all the federal tree nurseries, over half of the state nurseries and almost half of the private nurseries asking about their capacity to deliver seeds and seedlings. It found that production of seeds and seedlings needs to multiply by a factor of six.
Why? Climate-changed induced severity increases in forest fires. Lower intensity fires leave seeds untouched in the ground and at the tops of trees. Medium and high intensity fires burn those seeds as well. And when fires like the August Complex fire in northern California in 2017 burn 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares), nature can’t blow seeds in from the periphery, another natural reforestation technique.
The supply chain for seeds was built on 9% replacement after fires, as nature used to replant forests 91% of the time. Not any more. Now it’s dead ground and invasive species like Himalayan black berries and scotch bloom that die off and create more fuel for the next fire. Recurrent releases of gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere are happening with the perpetual fire cycle.
That cycle has to be broken with much more rapid reforestation.
And so, DroneSeed bought SilvaSeed in August of 2021. Now they “reforest faster, every year.” They offer a vertically integrated suite of services. Drones for difficult terrain. Collecting and cleaning the seed. Growing seedlings. Small plot manual reforestation. Financing. One stop shopping, with massive aerial buzzsaws. They are the largest seed bank on the west coast, and possibly the USA.
Where does the money come from? Previously, reforestation was like an oil change, something that people did grudgingly and for the lowest price they could find. Now, new methods of carbon credits on burned land with permanent easements that prevents logging have come into existence. They are a financial flywheel behind reforestation.
Traditional funding models used to take a year to get the money together. Then growing seedlings took another year. Then lean, hot, sweaty and bug-encrusted tree planters did wind sprints up and down the mountains with the seedlings.
The entire process took two to three years. Among other things, all the weeds that prevented seedlings from growing had to be cut back at additional expense before the seedlings went in.
DroneSeed can get seeds onto burnt areas in 90 days. This avoids the weed-clearing expense, and the carbon offsets turbocharge funding, with two year payback times.
But there’s that little problem of flying swarms of 112 lb six-bladed aerial buzzsaws out of line of sight. Anyone who has spent any time looking at FAA regulations for … well, anything, but especially UAVs, knows that the US FAA has one of the most stringent and careful drone regulation regimens in the world. Under 400′. Line of sight only. No swarms. Far from restricted airspaces. Commercial operations didn’t need to apply for years as they were told to stay away.
DroneSeed has multiple firsts. First heavy-lift commercial drones. First swarms. First out of line-of-sight. It took a bunch of effort. Calls with up to 26 FAA staff poking at different parts of the operations. Up to six inspectors spending time with them. This is first-of-a-kind stuff, so it was more intrusive as the FAA figured out what they were doing, and how to regulate and approve this model.
Now DroneSeed files a NOTAM — notice to airmen — for the area they’ll be flying in, giving all of the helicopter and airplane operators notice that they can expect to encounter aerial buzzsaws in the area, so stay away. The pilot has their eyes on the airspace, looking for anyone flying in anyway, and ready to deal with it by getting the drones out of the way. And they have approval for this for every state west of Colorado, including Alaska and Hawaii.
Grant ends our discussion with two pleas. The first is: “If you are affected by fire, call DroneSeed.”
The second is to transition your work days to how do we decarbonize, how do we electrify, how do we mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. If it’s with DroneSeed, they’ve got job openings, and hire military drone operators, foresters and computer people. If it’s with other companies, Grant makes that point that we are all interdependent. He has to live with the next 40 years of climate change, and wants it to be a lot less impactful than it’s likely to be.
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