Towards the beginning of 2019, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service began warning officials of a potentially severe wildfire season. Australia had been experiencing exceptionally dry conditions. These predictions were right on the mark as Australia saw the most devastating wildfire season to date. It’s been nearly a year since what has been called Australia’s Black Summer, the 2019-2020 wildfire season, began. In that time, 18.6 million hectares of land were destroyed by the bushfires. The fires claimed the lives of 34 people and almost 6,000 homes and buildings. An estimated 3 billion animals were killed by the fires while another 7 billion trees were destroyed.
Australia is known for its unique wildlife like kangaroos, koalas, and reptiles. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) fears that with the effects of the fires, some of these animals have become close to extinction. One such species of concern are koala bears. Over the last few decades, koala populations have been steadily decreasing. In 2012, the Australian government first listed koalas as vulnerable to extinction. During the Black Summer, more than 25,000 koalas died in the fires. The remaining population is struggling to survive as gum trees, the only food a koala will eat, have also been devastated by the fires.
Officials have stated that if immediate action is not taken to restore koala habitats, the species may become extinct in New South Wales by the year 2050. The WWF has pledged to raise $211 million over the next few years to help reforest Australia to protect koalas and the countless other creatures that live in the bush. The immediate action to be taken will include using drones to plant thousands of gum trees. If reforestation were to rely on humans manually replanting the forests, there would be virtually no way that the deadline to protect koalas could be met.
After sprouting, a gum tree will grow up to 4ft a year within its first 5-10 years. A koala needs a large, sturdy, established tree to live in and support a diet of 200-500 grams of eucalyptus leaves a day. While scientists cannot speed up the growth rate of a gum tree, they can speed up the success rate of germination and how quickly the trees can be planted. This is where reforestation companies like Flash Forest come into play, a scientifically backed reforestation plan that uses drones. Flash Forest approaches the conundrum or rapid reforestation on two levels, by creating viable seed pods and finding a way to get them into the ground quickly.
The first step was for scientists to engineer seed pods with the highest chance of germination. The pods they came up with are about the size of a marble. Inside the pod are several pre-germinated seeds. This ensures that each planted pod will result in at least 1 of the seeds reaching maturity. Along with the seeds are enough nutrients needed to support healthy growth for up 9 months. Seed pods can be custom made to meet the needs of any ecosystem. For Australia, this would mean using seed pods for gum trees. Once the seed pods are ready, they are loaded into a canister attached to the bottom of a drone.
Before the drone plants the seeds, it is first used to create a detailed topographical map of the region to be forested. The map is then used to determine the best placement for new tree growth, further ensuring that each plant has the best chance of survival. Using an app on a tablet, one pilot can then operate up to 10 drones at a time to plant thousands of seed pods in a matter of minutes. Based on the previously taken maps, a course is uploaded to each drone. The drones coordinate with each other to cover all the quadrants preset by the frames of the map.
Flash Forest was established by a group of biologists, engineers, and environmental activists to reverse the effects of deforestation throughout the world. The Canadian based company states, “We accelerate the rate of reforestation worldwide. Instead of humans on the ground, we transfer the hard labour to drones at 10 times the speed. Living in the age of technology, we can effectively harness this to restore entire ecosystems, scaling the global quest for carbon neutrality.” By the year 2028, Flash Forest aims to have planted over 1 billion trees with the help of drones.
The WWF has not stated which specific drone companies will be contracted to plant gum trees. Using drones will cut down the costs of planting by close to half while increasing the rate of planting and growth tremendously, even in hard to reach places. According to WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman, the WWF will be employing several tactics to save koalas, with drones leading the charge in getting it started. “The magnitude of the bushfire crisis requires us to respond at a scale that’s never been done before. One of the new ways we’re doing this is using drones that can put large amounts of seed across landscapes and not only accelerate our ability to regenerate bushland, but also to reach inaccessible areas much easier,” he said. With these drones, Australia’s koala population, along with many other creatures, will once again have a sustainable habitat. The reforestation process will go far beyond saving these animals. The reforestation project will help to reverse the massive amounts of carbon that were released into the atmosphere during the 2019-2020 wildfires. These drones will be saving the lives of endangered animals and altering climate change that affects our entire globe.