Meet BioCarbon Engineering. This UK start-up is one of the top 25 finalists of the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge 2018. The company specialises in large-scale ecosystem restoration through a data-driven approach to reforestation. Using drone and satellite imagery to first map landscapes, they employ automated drones to shoot biodegradable seedpods into drylands, wetlands - and everything in between. CEO Susan Graham explains how our global net loss of trees calls for a scalable solution, and how BioCarbon Engineering is meeting that challenge.

"If we planted 500 billion trees we would offset all of human carbon emissions”

Please introduce BioCarbon Engineering.
“BioCarbon Engineering’s goal is to make a dent in the atmosphere. We think on a scale of billions of trees because the challenge of deforestation is of that order of magnitude. We leverage existing drone technology, sensors and algorithms to give deeper insight into ecosystem health, as well as provide a platform to plant trees in difficult to access or remote areas. We currently work in Australia, UK and Myanmar, both mapping and monitoring terrain, as well as planting.”

What are the drivers of deforestation in the areas in which you operate?
“Globally, we lose about 15 billion trees annually. We replant about 9 billion, meaning a net loss of around 6 billion trees. Causes include forest management, also bush fires, or land use changes. In Australia, we focus on coal mining ecosystem restoration, particularly in New South Wales. The mines move at a rate of around 100 hectares per year, leaving behind land which needs to be restored. The government has regulations in place, but it can be technically challenging.”

Talk us through some of the effects of deforestation.
“Take Myanmar: it’s left with only around 20% of mangrove forests due to deforestation for the purpose of collecting firewood. This decrease in that mangrove buffer region means that tidal storms have been very damaging, wiping out villages and killing thousands. The importance of mangroves as a protective buffer is now much better understood, and local communities now see them as places of economic uplift for both crab harvesting and fish farming.”

How does BioCarbon Engineering use data in reforestation?
“Data from satellites and drones helps in two ways. First is on the management and decision support side to see the existing or previous natural landscape, and distribution of species. Second is planning and execution of activities: we use imagery data to inform GPS-enabled drones’ flight paths, and that helps to automate planting, which in turn enables planting at scale.”

What advantages does this data-driven approach offer compared to traditional methods?
“In a lot of places, people will either have a map taken by aeroplane, or just use Google Earth satellite imagery. They’ll draw things out freehand and manually plant, either by hand or tractor. This means that you’re not capturing data at the actuation point. Our approach allows us to integrate data, and geotag where we’ve planted so when you monitor over 20 years, say, you can see where interventions have been made, and monitor outcomes.”

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BioCarbon Precision Planter spraying tree seeds in Mangroves Myanmar

Tell us about the drones.
“Our current planting drones weigh 20-25 kilograms, and carry ten kilograms of seed, spreading at a rate of 30 hectares per day. They look like quadcopters, but on a larger scale - approximately a meter and a half across. A 10 kilogram payload means it’s reloading fairly regularly, but is fully automated in its flight, so the pilot becomes the agronomist. For mapping, we use a fixed wing drone that covers around 250 hectares per day.”

How would reforestation traditionally be carried out?
“Typically if you were hand seeding you’d have three to four people carrying seeders on their chest, collectively covering seven to eight hectares per day. Or even using tractors, sloped terrain can slow the pace of planting compared to well-prepared flat land. We achieve 30 hectares per day, per person, with the potential to scale using swarm without increasing the number of operators.”

Who do you currently work with?
“We always use local seed suppliers - you get much better survival rates that way. One of the challenges with many tropical species is that you can’t store the seed, and that’s why these partnerships are so important. In Myanmar we work with Worldview International Foundation, who are the local partner coordinating land access and seed supply. We provide mapping and planting to scale up their current activities. We’re also in conversation with Land Life Company, a 2015 Postcode Lottery Green Challenge winner. They’re a great example of restoration in challenging areas, particularly dry climates. It’s great to have a collection of approaches to match different environments.”

What technological limitations do you currently face?
“One of the great potentials for this technology is mapping exact species mixes by percentage - it’s not there yet, but it’s certainly going to be in the future. In terms of species: the largest seed that we spread is around 15 millimeters in diameter. So if you’re imagining avocados, we can’t do that yet!”

Why the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge?
It’s fantastic to have challenges that encourage businesses to move in positive ways, being both sustainable and having a positive impact on the environment. Where BioCarbon Engineering is at the moment, we’ve developed the technology and we need to scale operations and sales. Winning Postcode Lottery Green Challenge would boost that transition.”

BioCarbon Drone in MyanmarBioCarbon Drone in Myanmar