By Chris Bivins
Aerial seeding isn’t new, but DroneSeed takes it to new heights with advanced technology and monitoring to help landowners meet their reforestation goals.
DroneSeed, a company based in Seattle, Washington, is combining drone technology with traditional hand planting to scale reforestation and replacing airplanes with drones. DroneSeed’s process provides more targeted seed drops and higher germination rates than what traditional aerial seeding from planes or helicopters has been able to achieve in the past.
Central Chilcotin Rehabilitation (CCR), a First Nation-owned company near Williams Lake in British Columbia, saw this firsthand when their project involved seeding part of a 128-acre parcel affected by wildfire.
“We were interested in what the company [DroneSeed] was doing. We had the big fires in 2017, and we had a spot to try the new technology,” says Danny Strobbe, forestry superintendent for Tsi Del Del Enterprises.
The reforestation was accomplished by distributing DroneSeed’s proprietary seed vessels through their custom heavy-lift drone swarms, supplemented by local CCR field crews who hand deployed seed vessels. While the actual seeding operation only took about three weeks, the planning process was roughly one year.
Finding the Right Reforestation Solution
Complementary to their aerial seeding services, DroneSeed develops reforestation plans for their clients.
“We work with landowners to write prescriptions for their reforestation and then execute different types of site prep needed prior to the planting operations,” explains Cassie Meigs, DroneSeed’s Senior Director of Client Solutions. “We take them through that whole process. Many clients don’t know what they need regarding aerial seedlings, while others are more dialed in, so we provide a range of assistance. We work with landowners on the planting, the post-planting surveys, and then of course the monitoring and everything else that comes after it — a full life cycle of forest regeneration.”
Regarding the CCR project, Danny says, “We used multiple different seeds, but predominantly pine and fir. About the end of May, into June, we started seeing some trees coming up. And then DroneSeed had their research team out. The results are pretty good so far.” DroneSeed compiled a report summary from the data and will return to do a follow-up survey.
“It was surprising how accurate they are,” says Percy Guichon, elected council member for the Tsideldel First Nation and CCR director. “Their [drones] are not low to the ground. They stay above the trees that are still standing. But the [pucks] were landing in the trenches where we disc trenched. It was quite amazing. And then with the monitoring, we get baseline information to determine if we need to put more seeds in next time.”
DroneSeed can provide accurate information to customers because each seed puck is monitored.
“The pucks are boxed and a QR code is attached that gives us exact information on the seed lot used, the configuration of the seed vessel or puck, species, lot numbers, all of which is then put into our software that goes into our custom-built deployer,” explains Cassie.
The deployer monitors each dropped puck, its location, and the total quantity dropped in the area. That information is provided to the client at the end of the project so they can track the success of the replanting based on species and density.
Percy is excited about the new innovations in reforestation. “I think it’s all about the collaboration and just being innovative. We want to manage the land in the best possible way for future generations. “
Danny says that although drones won’t replace traditional hand planting, it’s another option to use in different scenarios where hand planting might not be feasible or seed needs to get on the ground quickly. CCR is already looking at doing another project this fall.
Carbon Offset Sales
Carbon offset sales can help make a project feasible for companies that could otherwise not afford to complete a reforestation project before shrubs or invasive plant species reclaim the landscape. DroneSeed used carbon offsets to help asset investment company Ecotrust Forest Management (EFM) with reforestation of the Henry Creek Project lands burned by the Beachie Creek Fire in California.
“The carbon offset is a way to directly fund the reforestation. A consumer, company, or whoever wants to offset their carbon footprint can buy carbon offsets from DroneSeed, and the revenue from the offsets goes directly back to that reforestation project and benefits that landowner,” explains Bettina Von Hagen, CEO and EFM Board Chair. “These offsets are all pre-sold, so it actually helps the landowner with the upfront cost of reforestation, which is one of these huge things that landowners are really looking for solutions on.”
Bettina adds, “We’ve been reforesting for two years. There’s been a few passes, both of drone seed pucks, and of hand-planting in the 300-acre area.”
The drones could access steeper, less accessible portions of the property, and the seed pucks contained a broad diversity of seed, including conifers, and hardwoods. Today seedlings are emerging in the previously burned area.
The carbon financing was tied to the areas EFM voluntarily reforested. And a larger portion of the carbon offsets offered by the Henry Creek site were purchased by Shopify.
DroneSeed’s offsets come with legal protections, with fully funded enforcement mechanisms to ensure the trees will capture carbon for at least 100 years. These offsets are registered with the Carbon Action Reserve (the Reserve), and they work with on-site third-party foresters who track tree growth to assure the promise of the offsets is met for every project.
It All Starts with Seeds
In 2021, as part of its growth and evolution, DroneSeed acquired SilvaSeed, a 130-year-old company that grows millions of seeds a year.
“Direct seeding takes a lot of seed; it’s just how nature does it. So we really saw limitations in the amount of seed available for reforestation, and we knew that we needed to work on that,” says Cassie. “Silvaseed is now the largest private seed bank in the western part of the United States.” Additionally, Silvaseed is a seedling nursery, which the company is also expanding.
DroneSeed works with a number of agencies and landowners to acquire the seed. “We’re focusing on wild collection to get more genetic diversity across different seed zones, elevations, and species. “We look at where the supply is limited, where the demand is high, and where fires are happening. That’s where we focus a lot of our collections.”
A Little Preparation Goes a Long Way
DroneSeed takes site prep seriously as it is essential for the success of a project. “We come into the project site and survey with high-resolution LIDAR and aerial imagery. That gives us a complete 3D snapshot of the reforestation location,” explains Cassie. “We map the topography and remaining forest canopy including every standing snag and tree to give us the vital information necessary to write a seeding prescription and create flight missions for aerial deployment.”
Using the survey data, the prescription for seeding and planting is developed. “We focus on the seeding density, as well as the species mix in those small micro-sighting situations.” Specific site conditions are considered for seeding suitability. For instance south-facing slopes, which have more sun exposure, will require a ponderosa pine or other hardy drought-tolerant species. A riparian corridor will be more suited to a western hemlock or a western red cedar.
Using the collected data, the drones are pre-programmed with flight software created by DroneSeed. Cassie says obstacle avoidance is key, as “even a tiny little branch off of a snag can be a drone killer.”
DroneSeed’s custom-built drones can be delivered to a site in as little as a few weeks after a fire. The drones have wingspans of eight feet and weigh approximately 115 pounds with payload that includes the seed enablement technology called the pucks, which are fiber-based, compressed vessels embedded with seeds.
Operated by skilled crews on the ground, the drones require regular charging out in the remote fields. DroneSeed developed a charging truck that is capable of charging multiple batteries simultaneously on-site.
Cassie comments, “We operate like a NASCAR pit crew. A drone will land after it deploys its payload of pucks, and we swap out that payload of pucks, swap out the batteries, and the drone goes up to complete another mission.”
Eyes on the Ground
Because monitoring is an important part of the reseeding process to assure the landowner’s reforestation needs are met, DroneSeed has an in-house team to monitor the success of their projects.
“We send teams out in the spring to look at the initial germination, and then towards the end of the summer they monitor for seedlings survival and establishment. Our monitoring team gets down in the duff, looking at how the pucks and seeds are performing,” says Cassie. While the early stages of monitoring are accomplished by the team on the ground taking very detailed data, drones or satellites can be used to monitor when the seedlings get larger, and remote monitoring can continue throughout the lifespan of the forest.
In addition, if it is a carbon offset project, DroneSeed provides a full suite of reforestation and project development services.
“We’re there to support the landowners during reforestation as well as for long-term monitoring,” says Cassie.
“It’s been fun to be part of the evolution of the company,” says Cassie. “I’ve seen DroneSeed grow from an early startup phase — starting with the innovations around creating our heavy-lift drone swarms and seed enablement technology — to seeing the company evolve into a vertically integrated reforestation company.”
ON THE COVER
Luke Peterson owner of Northwoods Forestry
Leveraging Support & New Technology for Success
With more than 25 years in the industry, Northwoods Forestry owner Luke Peterson shares his experience.
New University of Idaho Program Seeks to Attract Younger Workforce
The three new associate degree programs will prepare students for jobs in fire mitigation, forestry operations, and nursery management.
Air Drop - Aerial Seeding with Drones
DroneSeed uses advanced technology and monitoring to help landowners meet their reforestation goals.
Focus on Yarders
Second installment about focusing on yarder innovations and developments.
A look at the tracked feller bunchers on the market.
Vote: Why the 2022 elections will be critical to our industry’s future