Tree-planting by drone – the next big thing?

Joe McWilliams
Lakeside Leader

It seems every week there’s a new use for drones nobody saw coming. Last week, for example, the Canadian Forest Service had one of the flying robots firing tree seeds from the air in an experiment near Slave Lake.

According to a story on CBC News, such experiments have been conducted elsewhere, but this was the first time in Canada. David Price, one of the CFS scientists on the project, told CBC interviewer Mark Connolly it remains to be seen how successful it might be. But it could change the way reforestation is done in this country. For one thing, Price said, it would be far cheaper than the traditional methods. It might also be more effective. Researchers hope the experiment shows that.

How it works is the drone fires little balls, or pellets, containing seeds from a sort of pressurized ‘gun,’ aiming the pellets at predetermined spots. These would be selected based on high-resolution photos that show where seeds might be more and less likely to be successful.

Seeding from the air is not new. Todd Bailey of West Fraser says typically it happens via a “big hopper” attached to a helicopter. It is not generally considered as effective as planting seedlings manually. The only time you’d try it, Bailey says, is if the mineral soil is exposed and ‘competition’ from grass and aspen suckers is not much of a factor.

Spokesman Jason Golinowski of Natural Resources Canada (of which the CFS is a branch) says the drone-seeding near Hondo is the second part of a two-part experiment that began a day earlier on agricultural land near Edmonton.

Shooting seeds into a farmer’s field is one thing; doing it in a cutblock is another. He says the drone hovers about two metres off the ground and fires the pellet containing three seeds into the soil. About three hectares were to be seeded in the test. They’ll be monitored to see what develops.

Asked about the possibility of drones putting tree-planters out of work, Golinowski says it’s a possibility. Also a possibility, he adds, is many more jobs in the area of drone manufacture, programming and maintenance.

The company developing the technology is called BioCarbon Engineering. It has previously done drone-seeding projects in Myanmar and the U.K., Golinowski says.

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