environment technology

Could you replant a forest by drone?

Scientists may be hard at work on technologies that can draw CO2 back out of the atmosphere, but so far we are yet to improve on the tree for efficiency and cost. The future of our planet as a liveable and comfortable home for humanity may well depend on what we do with trees. Preserving existing forests ought to be top of the climate to-do list, with planting new forests right behind it.

There’s no downside to planting trees. As well as absorbing carbon, they clean the air, help to prevent flooding, protect the soil, and enhance biodiversity. They provide shade, habitats for animals, and food of various kinds. Harvested sustainably, they can also provide carbon neutral fuel and materials.

This week I came across Biocarbon Engineering on an episode of BBC radio’s Costing the Earth. They are a British start-up with one of the boldest ideas I’ve come across in a while, though I am sceptical about how deliverable it might be. They have developed a technology for rapid re-forestation, and they believe they can plant a billion trees a year. The vision is based on tree-planting drones.

The first step is to survey the area to be reforested, which is done from the air by a fixed-wing survey drone. Over a series of passes over the land, it gathers a huge amount of data about obstacles, suitable sites for planting trees, and which varieties would be best suited to each individual spot. A full planting map can be generated, and then a smaller set of drones take over. These fly close to the ground and fire seed pods into the soil, each biodegradeable pod containing the seed and the nutrients to get the tree started. Here’s a video showing the process:

There’s no doubt that ‘precision forestry’ is a clever idea. It’s quicker and cheaper than traditional forms of tree planting. Two operators supervise eight drones each, with each drone capable of planting 10 seeds a minute: they estimate that they can plant 36,000 seeds in a day’s work. The machines can reach places that humans can’t get to, giving better coverage. Drones can also be used to monitor growth afterwards.

A lot of questions remain though – how many of the seeds actually come up? Is the ground prepared in any way or do the seeds take their chances among the other plants? I presume the drones can’t come along afterwards and add rabbit guards. Have Biocarbon Engineering actually planted a forest anywhere, to prove the technology? So far there have been several awards won for an innovative idea, and no reports of field trials. All the commentary seems to be from people excited about drones and big data, rather than forestry.

It’s probably too early to say whether tree planting drones are going to happen or not, but Biocarbon Engineering aren’t the only ones out there. Canada’s Droneseed are on the case too. They also have more updates about funding and regulation than they do about numbers of trees planted or rates of success. So we shall have to wait and see. If it can be made to work, it could be a big boost to global reforestation initiatives.


  1. All new initiatives comes with tons of questions Jeremy. I think this is a great idea and it is something I wish I could be part of. I understand the importance of trees in the ecosystem and would gladly volunteer to replant if ever able to be involved.

  2. The issues I see are land ownership and other uses for land. You cannot just fire seeds into somebody else’s land without their agreement. Truly common land is scarce in most parts of the world these days and if you find it, the users will want their views to prevail. Why is forest being lost? Because people want to use the land for something other than forest. So drone planting will only work if it is more economically desirable than the alternatives for the land users. Has this company got that figured out?

    1. “You cannot just fire seeds into somebody else’s land without their agreement.” – I’m pretty sure they realise that!! This is clearly a quicker and more efficient alternative to tree planting by hand, not an alternative to other land uses.

      It seems like it’s a little while from being ready to use, but it looks like a great idea which will be used sooner or later.

  3. I really appreciate you sincere concern for tree plantation and idea looks great too but we will get the real picture only once implementation starts !

  4. Some years ago Australia’s CSIRO experimented with planting seedlings of some trees in quite a unique way.Choosing trees with a root system that could tolerate freezing, they placed the roots in a container of water and froze them. The shape had a pointy end and the seedlings were dropped from a helicopter and when they landed the ice speared into the ground in such a fashion that the baby tree was planted to the right depth. I am not sure how successful it was.

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