By Andrea Watts
The past three years have seen DroneSeed on an upward trajectory, pun intended. This year, at the Washington State Society of American Foresters and the Olympic Logging Conference annual meetings, company representatives shared what they’ve been working on the past three years, and everyone is taking notice.
“Everyone has been waiting for drones to come to the [forestry] space for quite a while,” says Droneseed CEO Grant Canary.
The mission of DroneSeed is to make reforestation scalable as an effective way to sequester carbon. Originally, Canary looked for carbon-sequestering business opportunities in the transportation and energy sectors, but when a friend said, “I guess you’re going to be planting trees,” he decided to explore the idea.
“Trees sequester carbon in a fantastic manner,” he says. “They’re one of the most efficient resources to do so.” And if the 300 million acres worldwide that required reforestation were replanted, that would substantially increase the volume of carbon being sequestered annually. However, after researching and interviewing industry representatives on how reforestation was done, Canary was surprised how labor- and energy-intensive the business of growing and planting trees was, and that there was a business opportunity to improve the industry.
“If we’re going to build a sustainable way of reforesting in a cost-competitive way, we need to use automation,” he explains.
From Startup to Contracts
DroneSeed formed in 2015 and attracted notice from one of the largest timber companies in the U.S., as a result of a press article about them winning the city of Beaverton’s $100K Startup Challenge; the award included a $20,000 cash investment and incubation services provided by Oregon Technology Business Center. That seed money and the support of several major forestry companies enabled Canary and his team to develop a pilot reforestation project using drones.
Aerial reforestation isn’t a new concept. It was attempted in the 1970s by dispersing tree seedlings out of a cargo plane. As you might expect, the results were not successful because the seedlings landed in creeks, gravel beds, and even on trees. “There was zero micro-siting, and the economics were atrocious,” Canary says, but with drones, “we have software that’s vastly more advanced since the ‘70s, so we said, ‘Let’s take another look at this.’”
As the team researched the feasibility of reforestation using drones, Canary says the business reality of being profitable prompted them to rethink their business model. When they started receiving feedback from customers asking, “Have you thought about precision spraying, using drones to do more targeted applications of herbicide?” the company temporarily shelved reforestation and explored the feasibility of herbicide application services.
After two years of research and development in collaboration with customers, DroneSeed can now officially share how they have automated herbicide applications. Canary describes DroneSeed’s approach as a targeted application, “The scale that helicopters can do with the precision of hand spraying.” They have five customers on contract, although he cannot disclose who the companies are.
What makes their approach cost-effective compared to traditional methods is the use of multiple vehicles; in 2017, they were the first company to receive FAA approval to operate multivehicle swarms.
“If we’re just one drone, we’re the world’s most expensive backpack sprayer,” Canary explains. “If we go up to five drones, we start to get very competitive on the metrics companies are assessing—how long to do a unit and the cost.”
Although they buy off-the-shelf vehicles, they do a “ton of modifications” to meet their field needs. Each vehicle carries a four-gallon tank but they can only fill two gallons due to FAA weight limits of 55 pounds. Canary says they have seven airframes in the shop that can carry six gallons, and he expects future changes in the regulations to enable them to carry more than two gallons of herbicide.
Currently they are ramping up hiring efforts to hire more drone operators, and given the feedback they are receiving from customers, providing herbicide application services will be a long-term request.
“Everybody’s aligned with reducing the total amount of herbicide spraying,” says Canary. “Our customers are excited because it’s a cost center for them. We’re excited because our service is benefiting our customers and making them more competitive. It’s also fulfilling our mission of bringing a more targeted application specific to planting.”
After temporarily shelving its reforestation project, the company is now actively pursuing drone-assisted planting, and pilot data on survival will be announced soon, Canary promises. Instead of using seedlings as was done in the ‘70s, they will disperse seeds via drones targeting microsites.
There is a drawback to the trees taking longer to grow, he acknowledges, but there are cost savings, such as no longer having to operate nurseries or needing refrigeration trucks to haul the seedlings out to the unit.
“There’s a lot of reduced cost in using seed,” he says. “The tradeoff is you’ve lost that one to two years [when using a seedling] so how does that balance out?”
Another benefit to seeding is reforestation can happen quicker, which is becoming a priority as more acres burn each year. “Seven million burnt acres is the 10-year rolling average each year, but some years it goes as high as 15 million acres,” explains Canary. “Eight million extra acres of seedlings is a massive swing in the demand on a supply chain. That’s a lot of nurseries and people and trucks. Seeds don’t have that issue.”
Canary and his team are also exploring other seeding applications where drones could be useful, such as a postfire seeding project with the Nature Conservancy. Putting down vegetation before the rains come will stabilize slopes and prevent landslides, but what if you can’t put people on the hillside? “That’s where we really see some opportunities with drones,” Canary says. They’re putting together a portfolio of five more post-fire projects for February 2019 and are actively seeking western region collaborators.
To meet the growing demand of projects, DroneSeed’s team has grown rapidly this past year and filled a number of positions with people having expertise in aeronautics and engineering.
“We’re really working hard on bringing in a world-class team and people who are really dedicated to our mission,” he says. “How do we make this a scalable process not only for timber companies but for the much larger market of 300 million acres that have been deforested since the 1990s.”
Their head of operations is a former U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, Air Force pilot, and graduate of the USAF Weapons School (also colloquially called “the other Top Gun”). They’ve recruited forestry researchers from the University of Washington who have conducted projects in Lebanon, Hawaii, and the UW’s Pack Forest. One of their software engineers has a background in swarm robotics, and their hardware engineers were actively recruited by SpaceX and Amazon but ultimately chose DroneSeed due to the company’s mission.
Yet Canary is also quick to acknowledge that if it weren’t for their customers, DroneSeed wouldn’t be making the progress it has.
“We’re really thankful to our customers for spending time with us and giving us the benefit of their experience as we’ve been growing the product,” Canary says. “They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t think there was a big opportunity in the space.”
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