DroneSeed uses swarms of drones to reseed forests after wildfires

Fire seasons are now longer and destruction more intense as fires burn harder and spread to drier lands. There have been 32,247 wildfires across more than 3.3 million acres in the U.S. since the beginning of this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. An early start to the season and a particularly violent start in New Mexicoputs 2022 on track for record fire damage.

Historically, fires have left seeds in the soil and on the tops of the trees, but the hotter, more intense fires that are happening now burn the tops of the trees and destroy the seeds in the soil, so natural regeneration is much less common.

DroneSeed is a Seattle-based startup that claims it can start restoring thousands of acres of land devastated by a wildfire in as little as 30 days after the fire is put out.

“We are a one-stop reforestation service provider,” said Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed. “If you’re a land manager and it could be tribal nations, it could be family forests, it could be community lands, it could be logging companies, and you’ve been hit by a wildfire, we’re one of your phone calls.”

DroneSeed uses both seeds and seedlings or young plants from its own nurseries. He then uses swarms of heavy drones to spread them across the scorched earth. Drones drop their seeds into vessels called pucks, where they then take root and begin to develop into seedlings. These pucks are made from plant fibers and contain non-toxic elements such as hot peppers to repel rodents and other mammals.

Not all seeds or seedlings grow into trees, and DroneSeed reported that seed establishment and growth rates vary at each project site due to soil conditions, water quality, terrain type, climate temperature, tree species, and other factors.

Canary compares her fleet of drones to a cross-country swarm of bees that can carry and disperse many thousands of seeds. Each plane can sow three-quarters of an acre per flight. In October 2020, the company announced that it was the first to receive Federal Aviation Administration approval for this type of logging activity.

“The planes themselves are not something you can buy at Best Buy. They are eight feet in diameter,” Canary said. “They carry a 57-pound payload. We use them in groups of three to five people and they go there and they drop seeds on the landscape in pre-surveyed areas.”

Key to the DroneSeed model is seedling production, which has been a major hurdle to reforestation due to supply chain issues. DroneSeed recently acquired Silvaseed, one of the oldest seed companies in the country, and it is now expanding to become the largest private seed bank in the West, growing millions of seedlings.

The company’s activities are partly financed by companies buying carbon offsets. One such customer is Shopify, which bought enough to remove 50,000 metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere. In return, DroneSeed is restoring 300 acres of forest lost in the Oregon Beachy Creek fire two years ago.

“These climate benefits from planting these trees and reducing carbon emissions are what we are buying with our carbon credit purchase,” said Stacey Kauk, Head of Sustainability at Shopify. “This allows us to balance out our unstoppable emissions from our corporate footprint, such as electricity usage or corporate travel.”

DroneSeed is supported by 776, DBL Partners, Social Capital, Spero Ventures and Techstars. It has raised $36 million to date.