Millions of acres of U.S. forest land go up in smoke every year due to wildfires, in some cases leaving nature struggling to bounce back. “U.S. forests are really at a crisis point. We have seen catastrophic wildfires,” says David Lytle with the U.S. Forest Service. He says some forests need help to regrow.
The process usually demands crews hand-planting lab-grown seedlings in scorched areas. It's labor-intensive and time-consuming. But some are speeding up the process with drones.
"If natural regeneration is occurring less and less because the fires are high severity, what we need to do is, we need to be able to step up and be able to, as humans reforest faster,” says Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed.
Workers at the Washington State-based company deploy swarms of drones in fire devastated areas often over rough terrain. They map out the area and the drones are programmed to drop seed vessels in locations marked ideal for their survival. The seed vessels are about the size of a hockey puck. Inside are seeds of native trees and other elements that assist in the growing process. Canary says drones can navigate and fly across difficult terrain about six times faster than humans.
While the U.S. Forest Service is exploring ways to partner with companies and organizations that use drones to reforest, Lytle says hand planting seedlings is often more successful. “It has a higher likelihood of survival because it's grown to, you know, a larger size and is more developed than a seed would be,” he says.
University of California Berkeley forestry specialist William Stewart says because drones are still relatively new to the reforestation picture, it's difficult to measure their cost-effectiveness and success rate. “There's no reason to just say we can only do it the old way or only can do it the new way, I think we're going to see both of them out there on the landscape,” he says.