Have you ever heard a strangely loud bee buzzing incessantly nearby only to second-guess your initial reaction to the sound as you realize, “No, that can’t be a bee. It’s somewhat noisier, whiny and robotic – oh, it must be one of those darned new-fangled drone things up in the sky?!”
Yes, they’re a little obnoxious sometimes, but drones can be very useful too! In fact, conservation-minded engineers and organizations around the world have been developing drone technologies to solve many environmental problems. Drone planting is now rapidly gaining traction – especially in the wake of last year’s devastating wildfire season. Giant drones have been designed to methodically and efficiently distribute a payload of “seed balls” embedded with native seed across large swaths of land in need of restoration, including difficult or dangerous to access recent burns.
The Sugar Pine Foundation (SPF) is proudly pioneering drone planting to restore a 25-acre parcel in the Loyalton Fire burn scar northwest of Reno, NV this spring. We are partnering with the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest (HTNF) and Flying Forests (FF).
The project came about as SPF Executive Director Maria Mircheva networked with land managers about how to use the seed we had collected for post-fire restoration. Thanks to a popular FaceBook post requesting help with seed collection during the blazes, concerned citizens and community members had sent us 30 pounds of Jeffrey pine seed – enough to plant about 90,000 trees. The SPF had also been granted some very generous donations, which could be used to fund an ambitious large-scale drone planting.
“All of a sudden, everyone was talking about drones, so I started asking land managers if they were interested in doing a drone planting together,” Mircheva cites.
Annabelle Monti, a Forester at HTNF and a longstanding partner of the SPF, had also heard the buzz about drones and was keen to use this novel technology. When the SPF contacted her to determine a feasible location for a pilot drone planting, the Loyalton Fire burn scar was chosen. The Loyalton Fire burned 47,029 acres on the HTNF and Tahoe National Forests in September 2020. In particular, Monti was thinking about how to jumpstart restoration on a portion of the burn within the Carson Ranger District’s jurisdiction.
“One of the things we’re always thinking about is how we can be more efficient and cost-effective, especially when we’re talking about reforestation after a wildfire. This new technology could bring a whole new way to get trees back on a landscape, and we’re anxious to try it out and see how it works in our area,” Monti said.
Finding a drone team to carry out the planting was surprisingly local and easy, too.
Dr. Lauren Fletcher – a Stanford and Oxford-educated engineer and entrepreneur who is the inventor of tree-planting drones – heads the Beta Earth venture studio in Reno, and has created Flying Forests in collaboration with the Swiss NGO, WeRobotics. The objective of Flying Forests is to help landholders and communities around the world better access and utilize drone technology for local environmental stewardship initiatives.
As the founder and former CEO of Biocarbon Engineering in the UK, Fletcher brings years of experience with tree planting drones to Flying Forests. The Desert Research Institute, another Reno institution, also provides technical support to Flying Forests.
As interest in drones piqued, the SPF found itself in a unique position. We had recently amassed 30 pounds of native Jeffrey pine seed for post-fire restoration. Thanks to a popular FaceBook post requesting help with seed collection during the blazes, concerned citizens and community members sent us thousands of locally harvested seeds. Equally fortuitously, generous donations made funding an ambitious large-scale drone planting financially viable.
When Mircheva, Monti and Fletcher connected via Zoom, they quickly discovered the mutually beneficial nature of making a drone planting happen in the Loyalton Fire and hashed out a plan to plant on HTNF land with SPF’s seed and Flying Forests drones. While the SPF is paying for the drone services, the costs have been deeply discounted due to the trial nature of the project.
“I was really happy that Sugar Pine Foundation was interested in supporting this local U.S. pilot project. As a 5th generation Nevadan, I’ve always wanted to bring my vision and technology back to the mountains and places that I love so much,” said Dr. Fletcher.
The seeds and seed balls are now being readied for planting, but only once the snow has sufficiently melted and the local weather looks favorable can a planting date be set – probably in mid-April. When that day finally comes, the Flying Forests drone will take to the sky in a truly thrilling buzz and disperse thousands of seed balls across the landscape in a matter of hours.
As Mircheva enthused, “This project is really cutting-edge and really exciting. We are ecstatic to be working with such great partners and to be at the forefront of using drone technology to aid forest restoration in the Sierra. We all can’t wait for the drone to fly!”
Of course, we will be documenting and reporting back on how this historic project proceeds. Stay tuned!