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Can swarms of seed-bearing drones help regrow the planet's forests?
August 28, 2017
Resting in the middle of a grassy field like a giant black beetle, the multi-rotor drone looks pretty much like any other commercial model – the type you might see hovering over a football stadium, capturing bird's-eye footage of a forward charging towards the try line. Similar helicopter-like drones, equipped with cameras and sensors, are set to take to our skies in droves over the next decade: in the US, companies such as Amazon, Domino's, Walmart and Google are trialling drone delivery systems; in Australia they're already being used by industries as diverse as real estate and defence, and are currently being tested for their ability to deliver vital medical supplies to remote areas.
But once this remote-control drone takes off from its grassy resting spot in rural NSW, it behaves very differently from its quadcopter cousins. Instead of soaring skywards, it hovers just one to two metres off the ground, firing 150 bullet-shaped pods of germinated seeds into the soil below at high speed – ffwat, ffwat, ffwat – almost like a machine gun. With two operators running six or seven of these drones at a time, an astonishing 36,000 seeds can be planted in a day: 10 times the speed of hand planting, and at a fraction of the cost. Just imagine what swarms of these machines – think hundreds of them – could achieve, replanting trees across vast areas devastated by logging or bushfires.