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Drones could be the future of reforesting New Mexico’s burned landscapes

Surveyors pilot drones over a burn scar.
Courtesy of DroneSeed
Surveyors pilot drones over a burn scar.

The arrival of summer monsoon rains has slowed New Mexico’s historic wildfires to a snail’s pace. Now, forest managers are looking to restore the over 900,000 acres of land scorched in the past seven months by using seeds.

Though the future of reseeding the Southwest’s wildfire-ravaged landscape might soon look different––specifically with drones the size of washing machines filling the skies.

At eight feet in diameter and capable of carrying up to 57 pounds, the drones are custom-built by DroneSeed, a Seattle-based company.

“These drones are not something you can buy at Best Buy,” said Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed.

As the name suggests, the aim is to use drone technology to reseed our forests and to save crews from doing this work by hand in sometimes hard-to-reach places.

Canary said DroneSeed has had a number of inquiries about using its fleet to help rehabilitate areas of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire that burned just shy of 400,000 acres in northern New Mexico.

There’s a few steps that DroneSeed uses to get the job done.

Firstly, it flies smaller drones to survey the burn scars to create a 3D terrain map of the area so the larger drones carrying seeds don’t hit anything, and to show places where plants might grow the best. Then, it pre-programs routes for the drone swarm to fly and marks the exact drop spots for the seeds.

And this is a probability game,” Canary said.

That’s because tree seedshave less than a 1% chance to survive on their own in natural conditions. To combat this, DroneSeed plants tree saplings in the ground to boost reforestation success, although, the company declined to comment on how many trees they’ve planted and their success rates.

DroneSeed is in the process of sending a couple of its teams to New Mexico to survey fire damage. One way the company funds its operations is selling carbon offsets to other companies.

Corrected: July 11, 2022 at 8:05 AM MDT
This article has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Grant Canary.
Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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