Monday, April 27, 2015

Start-up Company Wants to Use Drones to Reclaim the World's Shrinking Forests

by Nomad

One company wants to apply cutting edge technology to tackle one of the world's greatest threats to life on this planet- Man's global destruction of forests. 

Drones have quickly developed a lousy reputation for being Remote controlled killing machines. Their use in the war on terror has admittedly become the bane of the leaders of ISIS and Taliban camps but, like "smart bombs", there have also been growing questions about whether justice is being sacrificed for expediency and about the collateral damage these devices inflict on civilians.

In fact the military use of drones overshadows their civilian applications. The term "drone" refers to any remote controlled aerial device and that covers a wide spectrum, from hunter-killer surveillance craft to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
One start-up firm, UK-based Biocarbon Engineering, is looking at the unique problem-solving capabilities of drones to combat the destruction of global forests.

The Scope of the Problem
Franklin Roosevelt once said:
A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself. Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.
That was back in the 1930s and the problem has not only continued but the global rate of deforestation continues to increase at a frightening speed.
The world-wide calamity of de-forestation cannot be left to future generations to resolve. Every year, it is estimated that over 25 billion trees are removed from forests while only 15 billion are planted.

According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). more than 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest, an area about the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year and they say that about half of the world's tropical forests have already been cleared.

Deforestation also plays a critical role in  global climate change, by releasing the carbon stored in the forests. According to the 2010 Global Forest Resources Assessment, deforestation releases nearly a billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere per year, though the numbers are not as high as the ones recorded in the previous decade.

The combination of burning fossil fuels and deforestation may make it impossible to put a brake on a runaway heating up of the atmosphere. 
That's bad news for life on Earth.

In addition to that, there is the loss of habitat for species that live in jungles and forests. According to National Geographic, 70 percent of the world’s plants and animals live in forests and are losing their habitats to deforestation. Some scientists now question if it is too late even for extensive re-forestation. Some forest-dwelling species they say are already too far along the path to extinction to survive.
Nature has proved to be much more resilient than many experts have predicted. And besides, throwing up one's hand in defeat is not a workable option. 

An Industrial Scale Rescue Program
In a step by step process, Biocarbon wants to reclaim the forested lands as fast (and as cheaply) as possible. The first steps require extensive planning to ensure success. This is achieved by mapping the geography of the target areas, then assessing their needs and conditions.

The next step- the most interesting- will use multiple drones will hover around 5 or 10 feet and shoot soil-penetrating seed pods directly into the soil. The pod contains germinated seels encased in a nutrient-rich gel to give the seeds a head start. The planting will be carried at a seed that would be impossible by hand, at the rate of 10 per second.
Using a squad of drones, the Biocarbon claim they could deliver about 36,000 trees in the ground each day for about 15% of the cost of conventional planting methods. Their goal is to aerially plant one billion seeds per year.

Judging by the corporate team, this is not some gee-whiz operation. CEO and co-founder Lauren Fletcher is  a 20-year NASA  research engineer veteran, a space systems engineer for Lockheed Martin for nine-years. (In an early incarnation, Fletcher also was -rather surprisingly-  a Reno black-jack dealer for Harrah's.)

At the website Fletcher explains that hand-planting the same number of seedlings is slow and expensive. The alternative is scattering the seeds by air but this too reduces the success, or uptake rate.
Both of these options simply could not keep up with the industrial-scaled deforestation taking place today. Fletcher says:  
Our solution balances these two methods. First, by planting germinated seeds using precision agriculture techniques, we increase uptake rates. Second, our scalable, automated technology significantly reduces the manpower requirements and costs. Finally, our mapping UAVs will also provide invaluable intelligence on planting patterns, landscape design and appropriate timing.”
Biocarbon's mission is to work hand in hand with non-profits and forestry services in order to replace the lost forests.  
"I like solving big global scale problems. I think they are some of the most interesting things out there that we have just no had a good way to attack. So, looking for a really good solution that can really help change our environment for the better is something that I am quite interested in and passionate about." 
The truth, however, is grim but it is a truth we must face. 
Chris Maser in his book, Forest Primeval: The Natural History of an Ancient Forest, notes that our disregard for nature, the forests, the oceans and all the life that lives there says so much about what we are as a civilization.  
“What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”
Even with all of the advanced technology at our disposal, until we begin to be deeply passionate and deeply concerned about turning things around- meaning, until we start caring- none of it will make much difference.