Everyone American knows the story of Johnny Appleseed, or at least some version of the real life story of John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, who was an American pioneer nurseryman of folk lore who traveled around the United States and introduced apple trees to parts of Pennsylvania, Ontario, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and West Virginia. Johnny Appleseed was born in Leominster, MA USA in the northeast of America in 1774.
Now we fast forward almost 250 years to present day India where in the battle against deforestation, conservationists have found a cheap and efficient method to plant trees by dropping their seeds via drones.
How big is the problem of deforestation? An estimated 18 million acres of forest, which is roughly the equivalent of the size of the country of Panama, are lost each year, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization statistics released in early 2018.
The following was originally published in the website Ozy.com.
He and his team have developed fixed-wing and rotary-style drones that can carry around 22 pounds of seeds of multiple varieties, “seed-bombing” an area while live-streaming the operation. “We would like to call it a seed dropping,” Narasipura says. The seeds are either placed in a ball of fertilizer or soaked until ready to germinate and dropped as is, similar to a bird spreading a seed in the wind, he explains. And the drones will record how the landscape changes. “We can actually count the number of trees that have come up,” says Narasipura. Once a navigation path is decided and programmed, the drones can run autonomously.
It’s a strategy that’s taking off across South and Southeast Asia, as countries grapple with deforestation that — despite well-meaning conferences, endless studies and an army of environmentalists — seems stuck on autopilot. Now, researchers from Bangalore to Borneo are taking to the skies for a new defense of the tree line. With many of the capabilities of piloted aircraft but at a fraction of the cost, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly finding new applications outside of the military or fun with friends at a BBQ. In the near future, when a tree falls in the forest, drones might be there to see it. And possibly return later to bombard the area with seeds.
In Myanmar, the company BioCarbon Engineering is working on a plan to use six automated drones to plant up to 100,000 trees each day, under a grant it has won to plant a million mangroves in the country’s delicate delta region. Across the border in northern Thailand, at Chiang Mai University’s Forest Restoration Research Unit, Dr. Steven Eliott says they’re working on a Styrofoam seed box that can be attached beneath commercially available drones. The box would open to drop seeds over difficult-to-access sites. He doesn’t plan to hoard his knowledge. Instead, Elliott says he hopes to put the plans for the add-ons, as well as the open-source code, online for “drone hobbyists to … get involved in reforestation.” And back in Indai, Narasipura isn’t satisfied with reforesting patches of land near Bangalore. Their drone’s modular design, he says, can be easily replicated. “We want to take it all over India,” he adds.
Alexander Watson of Open Forest, which collects data on forestry projects around the world using drones, pulls up a map using screen-share for an illustration of his UAVs’ capability. It’s a close-up of a small plot of land that’s part of a reforestation effort. The bird’s-eye view is sharp — 10 centimeters per pixel, he says — showing the tree lines and foliage of different sizes clearly. When he toggles to a satellite image, the contrasts disappear into a greenish blur. He says that image quality is a huge advantage to using drones, which are able to fly below cloud cover and even able to create 3D models with tree height, position and canopy diameter. That kind of knowledge could have taken weeks to obtain previously, trekking through the jungle on foot, he says.
But there are limitations. The major constraint, explains Watson, is coverage. Battery-powered drones can stay in the sky for a couple of hours at most. The data they collect is massive and needs significant computational power and expertise to process it.
Still, Watson predicts the use of UAVs in forest conservation will continue to grow. “Especially for the forestry sector, drones will be a daily device,” he says, similar to what GPS devices have become. The technology driving drones is itself advancing so fast that “the full limits” of its potential in conservation efforts aren’t yet known, says Watson. In the future, with increased data processing software and artificial intelligence, drone footage may help recognize a full stock of tree species, he predicts.
Meanwhile, Narasipura and his seed-bombing team in India have to deal with challenges such as occasional high winds — they had to suspend testing for a week in July. But after testing and retesting, in an estimated three years he’ll have reliable data on the method. He can then take that across the country to try to build a greener India. Almost automatically.”
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