DroneSeed receives FAA approval to operate drone swarms beyond visual line of sight

The drones are being used to drop seeds to reforest burned areas

Updated December 7, 2020   |   8:21 p.m. PST

DroneSeed
DroneSeed. CNN image

DroneSeed, a company that uses fleets of drones to reforest areas burned in wildfires, received approval in October from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for its heavy-lift drones to operate Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) and to expand its use of heavy-lift drone swarms to California, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. They previously had FAA authorization to operate in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

The FAA’s action allows DroneSeed to begin reforesting once a fire is contained and airspace is clear. Their aircraft drop seeds that are encapsulated in vessels consisting of four to six seeds, fertilizer, natural pest deterrents, and fibrous material which absorbs water and increases survivability.

The company has designed a system around a swarm of drones that can drop tree seeds in places where they have a decent chance of survival. First they survey the area with a drone using lidar and a multispectral camera to map the terrain and the vegetation. The next step is to use artificial intelligence to sort through the mapping data to find areas where a dropped seed is most likely to germinate, in order to avoid, for example, rock, roads, and unburned locations. After the aircraft are launched, the five aircraft operate autonomously as they fly grid patterns.

A swarm of five drones can reseed 25 to 50 acres each day, said Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed. While on a seed-dropping mission each drone can stay in the air for 8 to 18 minutes, then returns to the helibase where it is reloaded with seed vessels and the battery is replaced. Mr. Canary said it takes about 6 minutes to replace the battery and the 57-pound seed vessel container.

DroneSeed makes their aircraft, they are not off-the-shelf consumer level drones. Batteries power the electric motors that drive the propellers. When at a work site, the workers bring five batteries for each aircraft which are recharged with a proprietary charging system run off a generator.

The company has about 40 employees, 10 of whom may be manufacturing seed vessels for ongoing or upcoming reseeding projects.

The company is already reforesting some of the areas burned this year in the one million-acre August Complex of fires in Northern California, and the 173,000-acre Holiday Farm Fire in Oregon.

While most aircraft hired by land management agencies are paid by the flight hour and daily availability rates, DroneSeed charges by the acre.

After sites are selected, seed vessels are manufactured, in many cases containing native Douglas Fir or Ponderosa Pine seeds harvested from the general part of the country where they will be later dispersed.

Currently DroneSeed is the only company in the United States approved to operate with heavy-lift drone swarms, according to the company.

The video below describes the reseeding system beginning at 0:32 and ending at 3:52.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Rick.

Helicopters and airplanes reseed burned areas in Idaho

helicopter reseed Idaho
A helicopter is outfitted with a hopper to reseed areas burned in wildfires in Idaho. BLM photo.

After being delayed by the partial government shutdown the Bureau of Land Management has completed a large reseeding project in Idaho. The agency treated 52,000 acres of land that burned in wildfires during the last two years including portions of the 99,502-acre Grassy Ridge fire northwest of St. Anthony and other fires near Atomic City and Menan Buttes. Helicopters and fixed wing planes dispersed the seed.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Idaho State Journal:

Experts on the subject say the best time to reseed is when there’s snow on the ground.

“If you have a sunny day when you’re applying, the seed will heat up and melt below the snow layer,” Ben Dyer, BLM fire ecologist, said. “You try to have it put down when a storm is predicted in the near future so you can cover it up with another layer of snow.”

If all goes well, the snow melts in spring and provides the seeds with wet soil to germinate and flourish. There is currently 6 to 8 inches of snow on most of the ground where the Grassy Ridge Fire occurred last summer, Dyer said.
Dyer said the hope is that grass and sagebrush seed will establish itself before cheatgrass does and also help prevent soil erosion.

“We include a mixture of native grasses and forbs and we also have some introduced (seeds) that are a little more aggressive at choking out and competing against cheatgrass,” he said. “In the event that our native components don’t do well, at least we have that non-native component that has a little bit better chance.”

Grassy Ridge Fire
Grassy Ridge Fire, July, 2018. InciWeb.

Startup company plans to use swarms of drones to plant trees after a wildfire

The company is already using them to spray pesticides

DroneSeed drone herbicide fire reseed
A DroneSeed drone applying a herbicide. Screenshot from DroneSeed video.

Replanting trees after a wildfire or logging operation is an extremely labor intensive and expensive task. Carrying a bag of seedlings and using a dibble bar or shovel across steep debris-covered terrain can wear out a human.

A new company, DroneSeed, has a solution. Use machines. They are designing a system around a swarm of drones that can plant tree seeds in places where they have a decent chance of survival. First they survey the area with a drone using lidar and a multispectral camera to map the terrain and the vegetation. Software then identifies the areas that have invasive species or other plants the landowner wants to eliminate and then a drone applies herbicide to only the patches that need it, rather than dumping  pesticide over the entire landscape.

According to an article at TechCrunch, DroneSeed is still fine tuning the seed dispersing system, but the next step is to use artificial intelligence to sort through the mapping data to find microsites where a dropped seed is most likely to germinate.

Using a concept that has been around for a long time, they will coat the seeds with substances that will enhance its survival chances. The article explained that the company is very reticent to detail exactly what will be applied to the seed. In agriculture, seeds are often coated with polymers, fertilizers, or fungicides.  Polymers can improve the flowability and plantability — if the weather is hot and humid, cool and damp, or dry — to get consistent seed drop.

One issue DroneSeed appears to be concentrating on is deterring animals from eating or removing the seeds. They are looking at adding capsaicin, a chili pepper extract, to the coating. A fertilizer, if included, would wash off during a rain and then supply nutrients to the seed as it germinates.

The drones they are using are off the shelf aircraft that DroneSeed guts and converts into a machine that fits their missions. They are referred to as “heavy lift” drones since they weigh more than the 55-pound maximum for more conventional drones. The FAA limits heavy lifts to 115 pounds. The company says they are the first and only company the FAA has approved to use drone swarms to dispense agricultural payloads (fertilizers, herbicides, and water).

The FAA classifies this exception as “precedent setting”, referring to the exceptional lengths DroneSeed has gone to prove out its ability to scale operations to larger payloads for multiple concurrent flights.

As you can see in the video below, the drones are used in swarms, with five to six drones being able to equal the production of one helicopter when spraying herbicides.

DroneSeed has worked for three of the five largest timber companies since 2017 spraying herbicides, but they are just getting into the tree seeding game. They missed the prime planting season this year but were able to apply seeds to a few small sites and should be in a good position next year to show off their results.

Aircraft reseeding burned area crashes in Utah

The pilot walked away with minor injuries

An Air Tractor 802 crashed January 17 in Utah about eight miles west of Vernon while reseeding an area that had previously burned. The pilot, who had minor injuries, told police the aircraft lost power and was unable clear terrain in the Sheeprock Mountains.

It occurred at about 5 p.m. after which the pilot walked for about two and a half hours until he was found by crews flying Utah National Guard Apache helicopters equipped with infrared sensors who happened to be training in the area.

Air Tractors are often used as air tankers, but this one was dropping seeds instead of retardant.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave.

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