Planting trees via drones

This post originally appeared on http://pamplinmedia.com/sl/311316-186588-planting-trees-via-drones.

[Editor’s Note: DroneSeed’s CEO, Grant Canary, noted that reforesting after harvests is a $452 million business annually in the Pacific Northwest alone.]

Grant Canary says planting forests is 100 years behind the times.

His Beaverton-based company, DroneSeed, is flying to the rescue.

Using a small air force of teched-out drones, Canary says his startup will be able to reforest steep slopes of newly logged commercial forests, replant charred landscapes as soon as the smoke clears from catastrophic fires, and restore sensitive natural habitats for fish and wildlife. And they can do the work years faster and for millions of dollars less than the armies of shovel-wielding humans who do this kind of labor today.

“It’s really expensive and dangerous, in some cases, to send people out there with shovels,” Canary says. “We are much more efficient, orders of magnitude more efficient.”

DroneSeed’s drones rapidly fire nutrient-loaded seed capsules into exactly targeted locations, where they will sprout into future forests. Or the drones can squirt herbicides so precisely that it kills individual invasive plants to give native trees a leg up. The same drones can fly into a mature forest and give an accurate account of how much timber is ready for harvest.

“That’s kind of our M.O., is precision forestry,” says Canary, DroneSeed’s 33-year-old chief executive officer and co-founder.

A single operator can run 15 drones across the steepest or boggiest terrains in the world, reloading each incoming drone with new seed packs or herbicide munitions.

Leading forest-product companies have the latest devices to harvest and process wood, Canary says, but replanting trees remains mired in a bygone era.

COURTESY DRONESEED - Grant Canary co-founded DroneSeed.

Enormous potential market

The financial stakes are enormous.

Reforesting after harvests is a $452 million business annually in the Pacific Northwest alone, Canary says, and a $14 billion market in the five biggest timber-producing nations — the United States, Canada, China, Russia and Brazil. There’s additional opportunity in restoration work after wildfires or reclaming degraded habitats.

DroneSeed expects to prove its mettle through four pilot projects now in early stages. Two are at forest products companies in the U.S. and Canada, a third is a tribal reservation damaged by wildfire, and the fourth is at Clean Water Services, the Washington County sewer and stormwater utility.

Clean Water Services is charged with keeping the county’s only river and tributaries running cooler and cleaner, tasks that native trees perform well where they are allowed to thrive.

Local pilot

Last month, DroneSeed planted a riverbank at Clean Water Services’ Tualatin River Farm south of Hillsboro, where the company and agency are testing drones to restore streamside and wetland habitats in hard-to-reach areas. Later, they also may test the drones’ ability to identify and spray invasive plants such as Himalayan blackberries, which can mar rivers.

“I think it looks real promising,” says Bruce Roll, the utility’s director of watershed management.

Canary, a 2001 graduate of Lake Oswego High School, worked for a handful of green-energy companies before starting BioSystems Co., which used food wastes to grow insects that were then turned into high-protein food for farmed fish. The idea was to reduce the use of fish meal sourced from catching forage fish, a practice banned in some areas due to its severe impact on ocean food webs.

Canary and partner Ryan Mykita sold BioSystems in 2012, and later decided to start another company.

“We were looking to make a dent in carbon footprints,” Canary says. After some false starts they focused on the notion that trees are the best way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, but that the practice of planting them “just seems so archaic,” he says.

Easier access

The reason, of course, often boils down to inhospitable terrain where tractors dare not tread, so they landed on the emerging use of drones.

“Drones have no issues with slopes because they fly,” he says.

For a company not yet a year old, DroneSeed is creating plenty of buzz — and not just from the rotors of its copter drones.

Late last year, it was among the first five companies to win the first Beaverton $100K Startup Challenge, a competition sponsored by the city of Beaverton and Westside Startup Fund that includes a year of free office space at the Oregon Technology Business Center in Beaverton.

“They’re basically the first people to bet on us,” Canary says.

Recently, DroneSeed was accepted into the prestigious Techstars Seattle startup accelerator, giving them a second office in the Puget Sound area and more help developing customers and attracting investors.

The company also has been among the trendiest newcomers on the AngelList website for investors and job seekers, Canary says.

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