Can land restoration be done in one machine? British startup uses drones to sow seeds, opening the way for ecological restoration
During this period of staying at home, life seems to be paused, human beings stay at home, and natural attractions are less crowded. We can’t help but wonder how the wild animals and plants are doing without human disturbance? In the July topic, the social enterprise stream responds to “SDG 15 Land Life”, inviting everyone to explore the rich life in the mountains and forests.
The start-up company Dendra Systems (DS), headquartered in Oxford, UK, is composed of engineers, ecologists, drone pilots and experts in various fields. It combines AI with drone technology to restore degraded land. From data collection and sowing in the early stage to land monitoring in the later stage, drones are relied on to complete the work in a one-stop manner. Tree planting drones have become a new business opportunity. The next milestone for DS: creating a self-sufficient ecosystem.
On an ordinary afternoon, a drone flew across the abandoned farmland in New South Wales (NSW), Australia. It didn’t fly by for no reason, it collected all kinds of data, including trees and other plants growing on the ground. This drone is an important implementer of Dendra Systems’ ecological restoration project.
Technology start-up company Dendra Systems (DS) completed a 10 million A-round fundraising in 2020, and the team is in full swing to design a technological solution for land restoration.
Over the past few centuries, humans have deprived the world of 2 billion hectares of forests and also resulted in a large number of land degraded areas. The area of land degradation caused by accumulated economic activities is comparable to that of Australia (approximately 7.8 million square kilometers, ranking sixth in the world in terms of area). DS CEO Susan Graham said that the technology they are currently developing can be called the “full tool set” necessary for land restoration.
Like many start-ups, DS is using the “sea of trees tactic” to fight climate change. However, they are not limited to planting trees, but also focus on enhancing biodiversity and paying more attention to the recovery of natural systems.
Graham explained: “We want to recreate positive ecosystems. Not just a single tree species, but also grasses, shrubs, and mixed in with the appropriate exotic trees. In this way, this artificial ecosystem can eventually become self-sustaining. An environment of immortality.” In addition, taking into account the diversity of species, it also spreads risks along the way, and heterogeneous plant populations are more resistant to natural challenges (such as wildfires, insect pests), and individual species are also more likely to survive after large-scale disasters. Although it will be damaged, at least it will not be extinct.
Technological work: How does this “drone tool set” perform tasks?
At first, DS dispatched the “Information Search Drone” to inspect abandoned mines and farmland to collect the latest information on such places, and then combined with field surveys by ecologists to establish a complete land database. Then use AI technology to sort out the land data, such as identifying the types of animals and plants within the range, and their distribution.
As the team observed long-term trends in land data that continued to degrade, they realized that unless necessary human intervention was made, land degradation would continue.
After the data analysis is completed, another group of “seeding drones” is dispatched, loaded with full pods, and drives to the target land for “strafeing”. This technology allows seeds to cover places that humans cannot reach, such as mountain sides and steep slopes. At the same time, the drone is surprisingly efficient, spraying 120 seeds per minute.
Monitor at any time
After the seeding is completed, the drone is loaded with basic planting data and returns. DS also sends drones back to the site from time to time to monitor the growth progress and the state of the land. Through the team’s regular annual observations, it was found that there were signs of the emergence of native species, and not only one species; the team also discovered the invasion of natural competing species one after another, which means that the environment is well naturally controlled in terms of the number of single species.
The team’s restoration plan does not oppress the living space of other species, but triggers natural selection.
DS first tried drone farming technology in 2014 (then the company was called Biocarbon Engineering). The trees planted at that time have grown vigorously so far and have successfully integrated into the local environment.
Graham said: “In the early days of the restoration project, when you were on the land, no matter where you looked, all you could see was barren; It is a native plant. In front of your eyes is a lush mountain forest.”
Using drones and software engineering technology, DS uses meticulous monitoring to ensure the smooth progress of land restoration projects. In addition, they also contributed a lot of tracking data for “Carbon Credit” (Note).
After the world’s environmental awareness has risen, companies have begun to plant trees. In order to offset carbon emissions, the DS team must verify whether these plants are still alive. Satellites can be used to observe old plants; drones are used to monitor the growth status of young plants.
Since the implementation of drone planting technology, DS statistics have completed the planting of 8.67 million seeds; involving hundreds of hectares of land. Coupled with this A-round fundraising, the team expects to expand the rehabilitation program to North America and other countries. Accumulating past field surveys, DS has collected a total of 2 billion hectares of wasteland inventory, which can be said to be fully prepared for a larger-scale land restoration plan. However, at the same time, the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere continues to Soaring, species extinction rate is 10 times faster than 10 million years ago. “Because of this, the things we put into things are more meaningful, and the team has always been so motivated,” Graham said.
Note: Carbon Credit comes from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Each country is required to limit carbon emission quotas. Excessive countries must purchase “carbon emission credits” from countries with sufficient quotas, and the funds must be used for forest conservation to compensate for the pollution caused by excessive carbon dioxide emissions.