DroneSeed, which uses drone swarms to accelerate reforestation by planting and protecting trees, recently announced the first-ever approval by the FAA to operate heavy-lift drone swarms weighing greater than 55 pounds. This coincides with their public announcement of receiving $3.7 million in funding earlier this year.
The Approval Process for Flying a UAS Over 55 Lbs.
To conduct their re-planting project, DroneSeed needed permission to fly multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, weighing 55 pounds or more. Under the Part 107 rules, unmanned aircraft must weigh less than 55 pounds, including payload, at takeoff. Additionally, an operator cannot fly more than one aircraft at a time.
DroneSeed received permission to fly multiple aircraft with only one pilot (waiver § 107.35) in 2017 after passing a knowledge and skills test that certified their aircraft and pilot. The FAA test was pioneered for DroneSeed, and their pilot was the first to ever pass it.
DroneSeed obtained both a 107.35 waiver and a 137 exemption for spraying in 2017 for an agricultural spraying project. To get their new re-planting project underway, DroneSeed requested a Title 14 exemption to fly multiple UAVs weighing greater than the 55 pounds.
This was an incredibly sophisticated FAA approval process that sets a new legal precedent. Normally these types of approvals are first obtained by major aerospace and industrial giants.
—Lisa Ellman, aviation counsel to DroneSeed
Read a summary of DroneSeed’s Petition for Exemption here.
Following the FAA approval, DroneSeed signed its first commercial, post-wildfire re-planting project with one of the five-largest timber companies in the U.S.—execution of the contract is already underway. The company is also actively reviewing proposals from entities concerned with restoring large acreages of difficult terrain with native vegetation in the Malibu fires.
The Crucial Reason We Need Re-Planting and Reforestation
Reforestation, a $62 billion industry, is one of the best ways to combat and recover from climate-change induced disasters, such as some wildfires. However, reforestation techniques have not changed in 100 years: trees are still planted by work crews with shovels—a slow, expensive, and grueling process in which recruiting labor is a challenge.
Under traditional reforestation methods, land managers hit by fire normally order trees and grow them in a nursery for 18 months before transplanting them. In the interim time, land erodes causing mudslides and degrading fish habitat due to sediment in the water or invasive species move in.
“We lose two-and-a-half billion trees every year,” said Jay Zaveri, partner at Social Capital—the venture capital firm that led DroneSeed’s investment round earlier this year. With the outbreak of forest fires across the country this year, that number will sadly increase.
However, DroneSeed is working to change that with semi-automated reforestation made possible with UAVs. While some fear automation and machinery will cause working human beings to lose their jobs, DroneSeed CEO Grant Canary says that just isn’t the case. In fact, he believes introducing UAVs into reforestation procedures will do the opposite—create better jobs.
People hear automation and they think ‘job killing.’ It’s the opposite. We’re making clean-tech rural jobs people can do for a lifetime.
—Grant Canary, CEO at DroneSeed
Due to the physical intensity of the job, people on reforestation crews don’t last more than a season or two, and they only plant two acres a day on average. “Considering seven million acres burn each year in the U.S. and three hundred million acres have been deforested since the 1990’s, that’s just not scalable,” says Canary. Automation with drones allows these crew members to work with clean, non-polluting technology and cover more acreage with less physical labor.
DroneSeed advanced on prior concepts of aerial seeding by attaching native seeds to one of four ecosystem-specific, patent-pending delivery vessels. DroneSeed has also advanced on prior concepts of aerial seeding by creating software for drones to target planting at good growing sites, called ‘microsites.’ Learn more about how DroneSeed is helping to plant trees and create a cleaner future in the video below:
What Equipment is DroneSeed Using?
DroneSeed currently operates with four aircraft simultaneously, each weighing up to 115 pounds and capable of delivering up to 57 pounds of payload in the form of tree seeds, herbicides, fertilizer and water per aircraft per flight. The company has been operating since 2016 under contracts with several of the largest timber companies in the U.S. The next step for DroneSeed is drone delivery of seeds.
The company has had to overcome the challenges of operating UAVs with heavy payloads and the need to cover large areas of land in a single flight. Some of these challenges include managing battery life and maximizing flight time. Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed told us a bit about the drone technology DroneSeed has created to overcome these obstacles and conduct automated reforestation.
“DroneSeed has spent a significant amount of time building the software and the hardware to maximize uptime, or how much our aircraft are on the ground versus in the air working,” said Canary.
Canary compared his operations team to a NASCAR pit crew. “The ops team operates a bit like a NASCAR pit crew when swarms land, turning around aircraft as fast as possible. We do continuous improvement projects to speed up the turnaround time and use several 3D printers and laser cutters to prototype parts,” Canary told UAV Coach. Once they’ve developed the parts, software, and systems their happy with, DroneSeed turns to Seattle’s (where the company is headquartered) larger ecosystem of fabricators to do much larger production runs.
DroneSeed’s Successful $3.7 Million Fundraising Round
Their investment round closed earlier this year but just announced, and was led by venture capital firm Social Capital with Spero Ventures, and Techstars. The round follows an investment thesis emerging in some venture capital circles that the biggest investment returns will come from startups that utilize software to operate in regulated industries, such as the case with Airbnb, Lyft/Uber and 23andMe. Social Capital previously invested in Saildrone, Swarm Technologies, Urban Footprint, and Aclima, all of which operate beyond pure software and serve customers that include government entities.
“We are incredibly excited for the DroneSeed team, as they now expand from the private sector to engage with government agencies and nonprofits to utilize drone swarms to restore our forests and rangelands at an unprecedented rate,” said Jay Zaveri, partner at Social Capital.
Rob Veres, partner at Spero Ventures, addressed their investor perspective stating, “In DroneSeed, Spero saw a company that was building the necessary and challenging back-end hardware and software to enable drones to deliver a useful service beyond data, in one of the first areas of airspace it would be possible, for a purpose of incredible importance to humanity — reforestation and mitigating the worst effects of climate change.” Spero Ventures’ sole limited partner is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
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