Dendra System’s seed-spitting drones rebuild forests from the air

There is hope, however. A recent study in the journal Nature found that “restoring 15 percent of converted lands in priority areas could avoid 60 percent of expected extinctions while sequestering 299 gigatonnes of CO2.” That’s a third of the total increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide since the start of the Industrial Revolution. 

In response, governments, NGOs, charities and even private businesses have devised and implemented reforestation plans that work much like the “take-a-penny, leave-a-penny” trays next to your bodega’s cash register do. Essentially they seek to replace what has been removed in order to maintain balance within the system. In 2011, for example, Germany and the International Union for Conservation of Nature launched the Bonn Challenge which seeks to restore 350 million hectares (Mha) of land by 2030. To date, more than 43 nations located in tropical and subtropical climates have pledged to restore 300 Mha. 

These are lofty goals indeed. The problem is, reforestation efforts are labor intensive. You need boots on the ground and hands in the soil for these campaigns to be successful and, as such, often become long, slogging affairs. For example, the Worldview International Foundation in 2012, launched a campaign to plant a billion mangrove trees in the nation of Myanmar. In the subsequent seven years, local volunteers managed to plant 6 million seedlings by hand — an admirable effort but simply too slow to make a difference at the scale required. That’s when Dendra Systems, a drone-based forest restoration company, got involved. With the help of modern avionics and automation, the campaign managed to plant an additional 4 million mangrove seedlings in 2019 alone. The company estimates that a pair of operators flying ten drones could plant as many as 400,000 trees per day.

“The human species has been very good at building tools to do deforestation at an industrial scale,” Jeremie Leonard, an engineer with Dendra Systems, told Engadget. “And, for a long time, the state of the arts in ecosystem restoration was hand planting. So we’re trying to give restoration a toolset to be able to do that at the largest scale.”

For Dendra, that toolset includes two types of modified commercial-grade autonomous aerial drone platforms, a visual AI, a machine learning algorithm for establishing seeding patterns, and a custom built seed-spitter that fires marble-sized pods packed with baby trees and all the nutrients they need to get growing. Since the company’s founding in 2014, it has completed nearly 40 contracts in 11 nations, largely working with resource extraction companies to repair landscapes after the completion of mining and forestry activity.

The company’s fourfold restoration process starts with an in-depth aerial survey of the acreage to be reclaimed, looking at “the terrain, the topology, the nutrients, the biodiversity,” founder Lauren Fletcher said during a 2017 Ted Talk, as well as slope, soil type and moisture. Dendra’s largest mapping drone can carry up to 22 kilograms of equipment and its sensors can resolve images at 2-3cm per pixel. “The idea of going