At the just completed ForestTECH 2017 series, we heard from major forestry companies in both Australia and New Zealand that are investing heavily in drones, training in-company pilots and using the technology operationally across their estates. In addition, the ABC reports that drones may soon be used to plant trees.

In May of this year 12 NSW pilots along with three existing pilots were trained and now they have 15 pilots based in 10 offices across NSW who routinely use drones for plantation and native assessments, regeneration assessments and koala monitoring. In New Zealand Timberlands manage 200,000ha of plantation forests and have six qualified pilots (harvest manager, establishment manager, thinning manager, fire and security manager, inventory manager and forest engineer) and are training more. Swedish forestry companies are also heading down this same path and Mr Malmqvist; Project Manager at Södra said “The technology is extremely cost and time efficient. Drones enable you to quickly see if and where a manual inspection or action is required. This enables more efficient work methods that, by extension, benefit our forest owner members. Moreover, drones make work safer for forest inspectors, not least when making inventories of windfalls following a storm

In addition to other tasks done by drones, an Australian engineer is hoping to use drones to plant 1 billion trees every year to meet United Nations reforestation targets. It’s a big ask but the planet loses 15 billion trees every year; much of it cleared for farmland. Dr Susan Graham from Oxford in the UK says “We plant 9 billion trees every year leaving a net loss of 6 billion. The rate of replanting is too slow.” Dr Graham is currently working with an international team including an ex-NASA engineer who worked on the search for life on Mars and one of the world’s largest drone makers.

Dr Graham has helped build a drone system that can scan the land, identify ideal places to grow trees, and then fire germinated seeds into the soil; even in areas previously impossible to reach like steep hills. She is hoping that their system is capable of planting at “10 times the rate of hand planting and at 20% of the cost. Their current drone technology can currently carry 150 seed pods at a time. “We’re firing at one a second, which means a pair of operators will be able to plant nearly 100,000 trees per day and 60 teams like this will get us to a billion trees a year,” she said. The team has tested its drone technology around the world and was in 2017 was in Dungog, in the New South Wales Hunter region. This involved trialling their seed-spreading drone to rehabilitate land once used by coal mines.