Illegal logging, urban expansion, cattle farming and palm oil production… they all contribute to deforestation. And that’s problematic. Very problematic. The current rate at which forests are chopped down is 15 million trees per year or 36 football fields per minute. Yes, per MINUTE. Where the trees once sequestered atmospheric CO2, their removal leads to 17% of global carbon emissions, according to the UN. To reverse the effects of this mass murder of forests, reforestation at industrial scale is needed.

photo: ABC News/Dave Maguire

That’s exactly what former NASA engineer Lauren Fletcher thought when he founded BioCarbon Engineering. The Oxford-based start-up’s aim: using technology to replant trees ten times faster than humans can do manually, at a fraction of the cost. Which technology is going to deliver on that promise, you wonder?

The solution lies in drones and machine learning. BioCarbon Engineering developed a fixed-wing drone that maps out a terrain by flying over it. The surface topology, soil type, moisture content, and vegetation characteristics of the area are measured. This data is processed and used to generate an optimal planting pattern. Next, another drone flies over the area, firing seed pods at the predetermined locations. Planting one tree takes less than 5 seconds. Using drones is not only faster, it also allows to reach challenging environments where it was previously impossible to undertake reforestation efforts.

A fixed-wing drone maps out the terrain (photo: BioCarbon Engineering)

The seed pods are biodegradable and contain a gel-like substance that protects the seeds from the impact when the pod hits the ground. It also contains useful nutrients to give the seeds a head start. Different seed mixtures can be planted, allowing an entire ecosystem to be restored.

After the planting process, the BioCarbon Engineering team returns to the site every now and then to measure the progress, using their drones (of course). With machine learning, the data is used to improve the planting models. This way, the company merges two of the most remarkable technological developments of the last five years to fight deforestation at an industrial scale.

Such a great idea could not remain unnoticed of course, and the start-up has earned several awards and recognitions. The latest in the row is their second place in the Drones for Good Award in March. Although the company is still in its early stages, testing and refining their technology, they dream big: in a couple of years, they hope to have several teams deploying a fleet of drones on a daily basis. The ultimate goal: replanting one billion trees per year.

Founder Lauren Fletcher with an early prototype of the seed pod firing drone (photo: BioCarbon Engineering)