WWF's Regenerate Australia campaign is one of our most ambitious. But to restore and revitalise our continent, we need to be. It's going to demand collaboration with creative people and the adoption of groundbreaking technology.
That's where AirSeed Technologies comes in. We talk with Andrew Walker, the company's founder and CEO, about trialling drone seeding to help plant trees on the scale needed to support our struggling koala populations.
We recently caught up with Andrew to watch one of his drones in action and to learn how this innovative approach can support biodiversity restoration.
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Tell us about your company, Andrew.
We're an environmental restoration company, dedicated to finding a way to combat climate change and biodiversity loss through reforestation.
We have a goal of planting 100 million trees by 2024. But we're not just out there planting monocultures; we're planting diverse, endemic species that can help restore primary habitat.
How do you do this?
It's a complex process. And it's not just about funky drones, but combining them with science. Because planting large numbers of trees and scrubs is one thing, but if they don't grow, then it's futile. We need to understand the environment - the soil, sun and species - and what we're trying to restore.
Ours is a four-step process. We start with ecosystem modelling, to work out what species we should be planting where. Then we manufacture seed pods - the delivery vessels we drop from drones. The third stage is planting, using big drones that fly autonomously. And the fourth phase is probably one of the most important - monitoring and proactive protection.
What are the different types of planting techniques you use?
We plant different types of seed in different ways. To establish grass seeds, we use a spreader system, which drops a seed inside a small pellet that helps to restore topsoil structure.
We also use gravity-fed systems that can plant up to 12 different species in one flight. The drones fly over terrain at a varying height depending on the delivery solution and know exactly where to plant each species. We've already tested the soil hardness and the system knows what pressure to fire the seed pod if soil penetration is required. This solution is perfect for germination and protection from the wind, rain and erosion.
Tell us a little more about the seed pods.
At the moment we're making around 70,000 a day, with the aim of breaking 100,000 by early next year. The pod is designed to protect the seeds from invasive animals like rodents, but also birds and insects. It's not meant to be tasty.
Each pod contains all the nutrients, minerals and probiotics that the growing plant needs, to feed its root systems and develop biomass. Once it rains, the pod can hold water to help the seed to germinate.
Why is the proactive protection stage so important?
Once we've planted, we use Artificial Intelligence on the drones to identify the species that have successfully established and those that haven't. We also control weeds that can be detrimental to the plants establishing.
How much can each drone carry?
The maximum take-off weight in Australia is 25 kilograms. Our delivery systems are bolted underneath the drone and operated from an app that controls the drone, telling it where to fly and where to plant.
What are the major benefits of this approach?
Traditional planting methods take an army of people and might see 800 seedlings planted in a day. Each drone can plant 40,000 per day. In around 10 minutes of flying time we can plant up to 1,000 seed pods.
The drone we've been using today can plant up to 40,000 in an eight-hour shift and one pilot can fly swarms of up to five drones.
We can be a rapid response to such things as bushfires, when being able to get out there and start making a difference within six weeks is really important. The drones also give us access to difficult terrain.
Our techniques enable lands to be restored 25 times faster and 80% cheaper than traditional planting. It depends on the species and where you're planting, but in the tropics, we can plant virtually all year-round.
How successful is this method?
There are only a few companies in the world doing this and it’s a pioneering industry. Over 100,000 thousand trees have already been planted and we're in the process of monitoring the success rates. Every project will have different outcomes, depending on the species, but we've found ourselves in a position where we can make a difference and that's what drives us every day.
The length of the fire season and the intensity of fires in Australia is growing, and that's only going to get worse. We can't stand idle and not do anything to help koalas. We have to try, and helping to restore their habitat will benefit many other animals.
The speed and cost are two hindering factors of traditional landscape restoration. This technology won't replace manual planting but it gives us an opportunity to undertake larger restoration projects. It's a tool in our arsenal.
We need technologies that can push our goal of achieving a trillion trees by 2050, which is what's needed to mitigate climate change and combat biodiversity loss.
Help plant more trees at scale by investing in cutting edge drone technology. Be a part of this exciting habitat restoration project by making a donation today.
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