Robot Reforestation Concept

Evan Ackerman points out this project, Biocarbon Engineering (“1 Billion trees at a time.”)

No, they are not harvesting a billion trees at a time, they apply UAV technology to the problems of reforestation (at least their own conception of the problems).

The basic idea is to use clever robots to plant germinated seeds (in nutrient balls) much more precisely than simply broadcasting from an aircraft, while moving faster and, it is said, cheaper, than human labor. The system also does mapping and monitoring of the forest areas.

Obviously, this hasn’t been proven out yet (reforestation takes decades to see the results), but we do know enough to raise interesting questions.

First of all, what problem are we trying to solve? Biocarbon has a pretty generic idea that there are large patches of forest and we need to cover them with seeds as fast as possible. Obviously, that isn’t the only situation, and I don’t know if that is the most important case. (In any case, I’d like to see full-grown forests preserved, not cut down and reseeded.)

The company also aims to be cheaper than human labor, while good enough to have good results. That proposition certainly needs to be tested carefully against the situation on the ground. Where there are people living in and near the forest, and low cost labor available, I’m not sure that the supposed cost advantage is strong. And the alleged speed advantage definitely needs to be demonstrated. People can plant trees pretty quickly, depending on the situation. After all, anywhere that loggers have stripped is probably easily accessible to recovery teams as well.

The system is intended to do “precision” planting, guided by digital mapping and GPS location. It isn’t clear how the mapping process will locate the planting locations, or how well that will work. How will they find welcoming soil for the seeds? One advantage that humans will have is that they can make on the ground decisions and plant in viable locations—down to the millimeter.

The system can continue to monitor the replanted area from the air to get information on the new growth. This might be useful, though it isn’t clear what will be done with this data. If there is a problem, will you dispatch a human team?

I admit that I’m being a bit hard on this project because I would prefer to spend the money organizing local people to replant their own local forest, and to live there and take care of it into the future. Providing income and motivation to sustain the forest will help counter the economic motives to cut them down.

I would hate to see a robotic swarm, remote operated from California or Denmark or China, zipping around reseeding South America or whereever (funded by Carbon fees and taxes, of course), with no involvement of local people. Hey, look! I can watch my Carbon offset happen live on teh web through the drone’s camera! I’m saving the planet! Yay!

However, that’s probably not what will happen, at least not in most cases.

I would expect that this Buck Rogers technology would actually be deployed by a hybrid social organization that includes local people as ground crews and probably as drone commanders, too. In that case, we are talking about local people equipped with (essentially repurposed military) technology.

They will use the UAVs to monitor the forest not only for replanting but for other threats and problems. This wouldn’t be a terrible idea, though the technology would be mostly invisible, and certainly not as important as the human actions.

Still and all, I have to wonder if this is really a competitive solution. We’ll see.


Robot Wednesday



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