At the recent UN Climate Summit in New York, businesses and governments pledged to “speed up restoration” so that 350 m hectares of degraded forestland can be converted back into forest by the end of the next decade – an area greater than the whole of India. This would have huge benefits for the climate, by storing carbon and take pressure off primary forests.” But how could this be achieved, on such a vast scale, so quickly?
Most restoration sites are on remote and difficult terrain (flat areas, near roads, are already used for agriculture and are usually not available for forestry). Current forest restoration projects involve laboriously hauling baskets of saplings to the restoration sites, usually on foot many kilometres from the nearest roads, planting them and then returning 3-4 times per year to carry out weeding and fertilizer application for at least 2 years. Recruiting the labour for such back breaking work in such remote locales is almost impossible. Another problem is finding enough seeds to grow the planting stock. Wandering randomly through remnant forest, looking for fruiting trees of the desired species, is a very hit-or-miss affair. Lack of seed supply has become a major limitation of forest restoration projects.
If we are to achieve the UN target by 2030, we must begin to think outside the box. And at Chiang Mai University’s Forest Restoration Research Unit (FORRU), we think that advances in drone technology and computer-aided plant recognition may provide an alternative.
Take seed collection. A seed collection team, walking along a footpath, searching for fruits in the forest canopy from beneath, finds very few fruiting trees of the desired species in a day. But a drone, flying above the canopy, would be able to log the GPS co-ordinates of many such trees, in just a few minutes and transmit them back to the seed collection team immediately. Auto-recognition of tree species from the shape of their crown is already possible.
How about replacing conventional tree planting with aerial seeding from drones? Drones can fly directly to the planting sites and drop seeds with high precision. The seeds could be protected within biodegradable “seed bombs”, containing everything needed to maximize germination and seedling survival – hydrogel, slow release fertilizer, symbiotic microbes etc.
Weeding would be essential to maximize survival of aerially seeded trees. But drones could help with that too. How about a drone which uses plant recognition technology to spray a systemic, non-residual herbicide on grass and other weeds, but avoids spraying young trees? So called “smart spraying” is already used in horticulture.
And lastly there’s monitoring. Drones are already being used to photograph field sites. Image analysis techniques could easily be developed to track changes in the ratio of tree crown cover to weeds, thus making it possible to plot progress towards the first milestone of any forest restoration project i.e. canopy closure.
Drones could recharge their batteries on-site using electromagnetic induction pads connected to solar charged batteries, raising the intriguing possibility of the whole restoration process ultimately becoming automated.
A few years ago, all this was regarded as science fiction, more appropriate for the plot of a Star Trek movie plot than for serious consideration. But not anymore. Most of these technologies already exist … we just have to improve them and combine them in innovative ways to achieve the desired results.
So it’s time for a serious discussion. Otherwise, pledges to restore hundreds of millions of hectares of forest become just a pipe dream. Therefore, to mark 20th anniversary of Chiang Mai University’s Forest Restoration Research Unit, we will run a workshop on Automated Forest Restoration, here in northern Thailand in January. Details of the workshop are in the link below. Please fill in the “expression of interest” form and return it to the specified email address. The form is available here.
Furthermore, we are running a fundraiser to support the workshop, help us keep registration fees to a minimum and encourage the broadest possible participation (link here). So, please contribute if you can, or help us to circulate the campaign through your networks to potential sponsors.
Future Terrains is grateful to FORRU for producing this article. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Future Terrains.