Control, Alt, Replete
Words by Ashley Braun
Like many before him, cleantech entrepreneur Grant Canary was sitting in a bar in 2015, dejectedly recounting his woes to a friend over a whiskey and Coke. Unlike most people, however, Canary’s troubles had to do with his attempt to determine a way to cut globe-warming carbon dioxide pollution—via a business model that people actually would pay for.
"Well, I guess you're gonna end up planting trees," Canary recalls his friend saying. “And he didn't mean it in a nice, friendly way.” But that snarky jab sparked Canary’s curiosity and prompted him to spend the next several months researching how large-scale tree planting worked. He discovered that the process—massively time and energy intensive—was ripe for a 21st century update, one that might benefit from the precision and automation of drones. His investigation eventually led to DroneSeed: a Seattle-based startup that uses swarms, or coordinated groups, of drones to identify ideal spots for deploying tree seeds, spray herbicides to clear competing vegetation, and even fire the seeds into the soil.
DroneSeed is part of an emerging wave of businesses, universities, and government agencies designing and building robots to perform ecological tasks, from replanting trees after a wildfire to pollinating apple orchards or controlling coral-eating starfish. But as humans increasingly turn to robots to help solve environmental problems like deforestation and climate change, the shift prompts deeper questions about the role that same technology may play in exacerbating those challenges or even creating new ones.
As Aimee van Wynsberghe, an ethicist specializing in robotics, points out, having robots interact with the environment for us—by, say, replanting trees—could make it easier to lose sight of the value of our environment. “It kind of lowers the threshold,” she says, “in the same way that it lowers the threshold of going to war when we have all these technologies that remove us from actually experiencing it.” And deforestation, for example, already occurs on a hard-to-grasp scale: It’s estimated that 18.7 million acres of forest are lost each year. If the current rates continue, all of the world’s rainforests will vanish in the next 100 years.
Still, van Wynsberghe sees a lot of possibilities for the new field, which she hopes will consider the range of potential ethical quandaries in the design, construction, use, and disposal of these robots. “We have to be able to show how environmental resources are either exploited or not well taken care of and that using robots in these ways can actually have a benefit,” she says. The field is still at an early enough stage that it may be able to incorporate these ethics from cradle-to-grave, perhaps even setting a precedent for all robotics ventures, environmental or not.
“Tinder for Timber”
One thing to know about DroneSeed is that its tree-planting, herbicide-spraying drones require a team with diverse experience: military aviation, forestry science, drone hardware, and software programming. Another is that its team is incredibly focused on its mission, sharing “a hell-or-highwater desire” to make reforestation scalable, which will be key in the fight to reverse deforestation (the number two cause of climate change) and to keep up with the more frequent and severe forest fires that come with a warmer world.
Currently working with timber companies in the Pacific Northwest (and in talks with NGOs and government agencies), DroneSeed sends out trucks loaded with its seven-foot diameter drones to the sites of past wildfires. In a first run, the drones collect data that allow the team to scout out obstacles like rocks and streams, determine areas of vegetation (often invasive species) to clear with precise herbicide applications, and identify two-foot diameter “microsites” that, if replanting is part of the project, the drones will eventually target for planting.
Those microsites are key to getting tree seeds into the best possible conditions for growing. DroneSeed trains an algorithm to recognize what makes a good microsite using what they jokingly call “Tinder for Timber.”
"Swipe right if this is the north side of a stump," says Canary, “or swipe left if this is a creek or this is a road." Once their software has determined the best spots to plant and has plotted out a flight mission, and after an herbicide spraying round, the drones go out again. In one planting method, the company uses compressed air to fire the seeds—protected in proprietary, nutrient-rich capsules—into the microsites. A year later, the team may return to “weed the garden” with another targeted herbicide application, perhaps also distributing fertilizers to give the tree seedlings a better shot at survival.
Canary emphasized that everyone he worked with was excited about using drones to minimize herbicide use, which is expensive, hazardous, and can be overused. One of his favorite responses from clients about DroneSeed’s tree-planting revolution? That it’s about time.
Nipping Them in the Budworm
DroneSeed isn’t alone in using flying robots to perform forestry services. Véronique Martel is an entomologist with the government agency Natural Resources Canada, and her research has been exploring using drones and other tools for controlling a forestry pest known as the spruce budworm. The caterpillar of this nondescript brown moth eats the new growth, or buds, of fir and spruce trees, which may kill them after several years. Most of the time, this naturally occurring moth is almost too rare to find in its native North American evergreen forests, but every 30 or 40 years, its population explodes to plague proportions. The moths flock to the bright lights of used car lots and clouds of them may be visible on weather radar.
Since 2006, Quebec, Canada has been battling a spruce budworm outbreak affecting more than 17 million acres of forest. In a multi-year research project, Martel is experimenting with using drones for the small-scale release of a natural predator of the spruce budworm, tiny parasitic wasps in the genus Trichogramma. These wasps lay their eggs in the eggs of the spruce budworm and eat the caterpillars before they hatch. Martel says that Trichogramma, whatever method is used for their release, can be effective against this pest, but should be used as an alternative to, rather than replacement for, the biological insecticides the province sprays to protect affected forests.
One of the agency’s partners in the project, the Montreal-based drone company Canopée dronautique, had previously developed a manner of releasing the wasps—in the form of already parasitized eggs—via drone, which involves first mixing them with vermiculite, commonly used in potting soil. Canopée is now testing another release method, which uses a corn-plastic-based capsule that protects the wasps until they hatch and crawl out in search of prey, whether they are released in field or in forest.
In fact, the company got its start in agriculture, not forestry, and has been working with food companies and farmers to control the introduced European corn borer, another moth and agricultural pest, in Quebec’s organic farm fields.
Both Martel and Frédéric Jean, one of Canopée’s cofounders, commented that some of the biggest obstacles to using drones to control pests have nothing to do with the drone technology itself. Instead, the challenges center on understanding the biology and timing of the insects, as well as the regulations governing where and when the drones are permitted to fly, a common complaint in both Canada and the U.S.
Like Canopée’s Jean in Canada, Adam Fine and his business partners in California saw a huge opportunity for drones in the growing subfield called “precision agriculture,” which employs data to make farming processes more informed, efficient, and, well, precise. They kept hearing growers bemoan the increasing costs of pollinating their crops, such as almonds and avocados, using trucked-in honeybees.
As first reported in 2006, domesticated European honeybee populations in the U.S. and elsewhere have been contending with a malady that causes the sudden death of the colony, known as colony collapse disorder. While the exact cause is unclear, U.S. beekeepers have been losing, on average, almost 50 percent of their honeybee colonies each year. As a result, pollination costs for some farmers have doubled over the past decade.
“We're going to have to do something [about farming techniques] if our pollinators are declining, climates are changing, and we're going to have less arable land and less potable water,” says Fine.
In response, he cofounded the startup Dropcopter to help address this pollination gap for farmers and to complement honeybee pollination when conditions are too cold, hot, or windy for bees to fly. They engineered what are essentially mini crop dusters: The drones fly over flowering trees at speeds and heights meant to optimize the release of carefully measured doses of pollen—a pricey commodity sold by the gram.
In February 2015, Fine says their team was the first in the world to successfully drone-pollinate an almond orchard, and since then, they have replicated that success with apples, cherries, and pistachios. Several years of almond trials, verified by third-party testing, showed Dropcopter’s “Worker-Bee” drone pollinator could increase the proportion of flowers that turn into nuts by 25 to 60 percent.
Citing growing world population forecasts—which the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says could hit close to 10 billion by 2050—Fine says, “The goal here is to increase food production.”
Down Under the Sea
On the other side of the world, Queensland University of Technology’s Matthew Dunbabin has been designing robots that swim rather than fly. The robotics professor is equipping what he calls “the drone of the sea” to tackle a very different problem, one plaguing Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef: deadly outbreaks of the coral-eating Crown of Thorns starfish.
Similar to Canada’s spruce budworm issue, these spiky, venomous starfish are native to the tropical reefs they are harming, where they usually consume faster-growing corals. When their densities are low, these starfish help give slower-growing corals a chance to spread. But since 2010, the Great Barrier Reef’s Crown of Thorns starfish population has erupted (perhaps due to excess nutrients from agricultural runoff, in combination with other factors), and their presence has had an impact. Between 1985 and 2012, the coral area on the Great Barrier Reef shrunk by half. While hurricanes were the leading cause during that period, coral-eating starfish outbreaks like the current one were responsible for a hefty 42 percent of coral loss. And that was before the world’s largest reef system, bathed in unusually warm waters, suffered two consecutive years of widespread coral bleaching, which affected roughly two-thirds of the massive reef system.
Translation: The Great Barrier Reef needs some help. The latest iteration of Dunbabin’s sea drone, dubbed “RangerBot,” can recognize the Crown of Thorns starfish with 99.4 percent accuracy and inject it with a fatal shot of a bile derivative, the same control method used by human dive teams. While humans may beat the bots at finding and killing starfish hidden under coral, diving can be dangerous and divers may be limited to working three hours a day, and then only during daylight hours. With eight hours of battery life (and batteries that are easily replaced) and lights for navigating at night, Dunbabin envisions RangerBot as another, more versatile, tool for scaling up management of these starfish outbreaks and providing relief for a stressed reef.
And he means versatile. “We called it RangerBot because a ranger actually does more than just one task—they manage an ecosystem,” says Dunbabin. It also functions as a reef monitoring tool that can map the seafloor, take water samples, identify marine life, or do numerous other jobs. He wants to put this underwater robot into the hands—and imaginations—of the broader public, from marine managers to school kids.
Pulling Back the Curtain
But even as RangerBot and other robots strive to rebalance out-of-whack ecosystems, van Wynsberghe, the ethicist, asks, “Are we tackling the right problem?” As she and Dunbabin both acknowledge, controlling the starfish may be simpler than shifting farmers’ overfertilization habits or slowing climate change.
“It's easy to throw technology at a problem as a toy. It doesn't address the fundamental change required,” says Dunbabin. The real solutions often require governments, industries, or individuals to confront much larger issues set in motion years earlier: habitat destruction and the decline of biodiversity, overpopulation and overconsumption, water pollution and climate change.
“We all have to think about our actions and the consequences,” says Martel, the entomologist. The drones are just tools, and (at least for now) they still need a human making the decisions about how, why, and, of course, whether or not to use them. “We should take this as a learning experiment,” says van Wynsberghe, “the kind of paternalism that we have over the environment and the kinds of problems that we decide we're going to try and solve with this technology rather than looking at the sources, the root.”
“Yes, we are doing workarounds till the world gets their act together on this climate change,” admits Dunbabin. “All the things that we're doing on the Great Barrier Reef now are just trying to buy us some time.”
But buying time is exactly what motivates DroneSeed’s Canary. “The importance of our work is making sure that all of the people working on other incredibly important problems have more time on the clock to do that,” he says. And if robots tinkering just a bit more with nature could help stretch out that time, then, well, why shouldn’t they be planting trees?