In October, with summer already in the memory, Galicia suffered a brutal wave of fires that made it close 2017 with almost 62,000 hectares burned. With the fire suffocated and with the balance of deaths, injuries and damage closed, the big question, the most complex is: How do you heal such a wound? The question was raised then in Galicia, but it is the epilogue of each and every one of the forest fires on the planet. How do you heal a huge ash scar? For some companies, such as AirSeed or C02 Revolution, the answer is as clear as it is imaginative: with drones.
Each one with its peculiarities, the proposals they put forward to reverse deforestation or recover land devastated by the flames, share some characteristics: they make use of biotechnology, "intelligent seeds", drones and strategies that largely revolve around Big Data or artificial intelligence. Everything, with the aim of gaining efficiency, saving costs and, incidentally, reaching land that could hardly be reached with the traditional method of sowing by hand.
Much more than sowing seeds
Beyond theory and paper, over the last few years both companies have left some example on the ground. AirSeed, which currently focuses its operations on Australia, where its headquarters are located, New Zealand and South Africa, claims to have already planted more than 50,000 trees. Its goal is to add 100 million in 2024. C02 Revolution has been involved in projects in Spain.
In mid-2019, the company, with offices in Madrid and Navarra, presented, together with LG Electronics and Recombina Biotech, the last phase of the reforestation process of the Alto Tejo Natural Park, which some time before, in 2012, had seen how a fire burned about 1,200 hectares. Thanks to the combined efforts of the three companies and the use of drones and intelligent seeds, the environment was able to recover one and a half million native trees.
Waiting for the system to continue to be tested and demonstrate its capacity, companies basically highlight two great advantages: cost and time savings and efficiency. The first is largely achieved thanks to the use of drones, devices that we have already seen, for example, harvesting fruit autonomously; the second, with a special coating for the seeds that facilitates their germination and chances of success. In the case of Alto Tejo, for example, those responsible highlighted that the effectiveness is 80% greater than with the traditional method.
How do they get it?
Thanks to the combination of a fleet of drones, artificial intelligence and special pods, designed to facilitate the growth of vegetables, AirSeed Technologies ensures that it can undertake reforestation work 25 times faster than with traditional methods and, what is the same important, lowering the bill by 80% that would involve resorting to manual planting. "Each of our drones can plant more than 40,000 seed pods per day and they fly autonomously," Andrew Walker, co-founder of the firm, recently told EuroNews.
Before launching the drones and "bombing" the field with the special capsules, the technicians work in the field and in the laboratory. Thanks to mapping work, they recognize the space, identify species, assess their health and "create an optimal plantation." "Soil samples are analyzed for nutrients, minerals and the like. Once identified, a soil-specific carbon seed pod can be manufactured," details AirSeed.
With all the data on the table, the company manufactures special capsules with seeds of native species, nutrients, minerals and other additives that complete the contribution of the soil itself and facilitate plant growth. The goal: to increase the rate of growth.
When that 'load' is ready, experts take advantage of the mapping data to draw up a flight plan and decide where each capsule will be deposited. Upon takeoff, the drones leave with all pre-programmed instructions and a clear planting pattern. So much so, in fact, that the pods are distributed at predefined GPS coordinates. It is then, the company assures, that they manage to cut their process by around 25 times the time required for manual planting.
The distribution of seeds in reforested areas does not put an end to the process. "By re-mapping areas after planting, and using powerful data mining, classification and change detection solutions that leverage artificial intelligence and computer learning algorithms, we can detect change over time, count the tops of the trees and calculate the biomass", comments the company, which thanks to this information can calculate the growth rates and assess the success of the "revegetation" tasks.
To achieve this, beyond the drone fleet, Walker stresses the importance of the pods, a "support system" that helps protect the seeds and supports their germination with an extra supply of nutrients and probiotics, but also protecting them from the rest of the surrounding wildlife. On its website, the firm focuses on the impact of deforestation and forest fires, which in Australia alone, where its headquarters are located, have destroyed —according to data provided by the startup itself— some 40 million acres, approximately 16 .2 million hectares. The United Nations points out that every year the earth loses 70,000 km2 of forest, an area equivalent to Portugal.
CO2 Revolution highlights another fundamental ingredient of its process, Big Data, which it uses to "analyze all the variables that intervene in the creation of new ecosystems". With all the information on the table, the technicians decide through algorithms what is the most appropriate way to regenerate it. In the process, they also use pre-germinated seeds equipped with biodegradable capsules and the elements needed for their development and self-created drones with tanks and the capacity to transport and launch up to 10,000 seeds.
In 2021, the Spanish company pointed to El Confidencial that it had already managed to plant approximately one million trees in Spain. In addition to the action in the Alto Tajo, on its website it reports on actions in Cortés de Pallás, a Valencian region that suffered a devastating fire in 2012 that devastated more than 30,000 hectares; or in Congosto de Valdavia, Palencia, another area highly affected by the flames and where it will repopulate 58.9 hectares with more than 92,200 trees.
Although the proposals of AirSeed or C02 Revolution put the focus fundamentally on reforestation, over the last few years drones have been gaining weight in cultivation work. In Queensland, a state that extends to the northwest of Australia itself, drones have begun to be used to plant sunflowers. The idea is the same: search for efficiency.