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This startup just raised $10 million to restore ecosystems by drone

Tree-planting drones are becoming big business. The next step is making sure they create a viable new environment.

This startup just raised $10 million to restore ecosystems by drone
[Photo: courtesy Dendra Systems]

On a recent afternoon on former farmland in New South Wales, Australia, drones flew over the ground gathering data about the trees and plants now growing on the land—a restored ecosystem that was itself planted by drones.

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Dendra Systems, the startup that designed the technology and approach, raised $10 million in a Series A round today to expand its work tackling land degradation. Around the world, humans have cleared around 2 billion hectares of forest in the last several centuries, creating an area of degraded land roughly the size of Australia. “What we’re building today is really the full toolkit that you need to restore ecosystems,” says Susan Graham, Dendra’s CEO.

[Photo: courtesy Dendra Systems]
Like many other new startups, the company plants trees to help fight climate change. But it’s more focused on biodiversity than on planting trees alone. “It’s creating a thriving ecosystem,” she says. “What I mean by that is caring about the grasses, the shrubs, the right mix of trees—the right ecosystem—so that it functions so that it can be permanent.” Using a diverse mix of species also means that a forest is better able to survive threats such as wildfire.

[Photo: courtesy Dendra Systems]
The company’s process starts by using drones to survey a site such as a former mine or degraded farmland to capture data about the current state of the land, and it then combines that with data from ecologists on the ground. Using AI, the drone data is analyzed to identify every plant and animal on the site, and how much land is covered. “We look at those trends over time, and what they’re informing [us] is really what intervention needs to take place,” says Graham.

[Photo: courtesy Dendra Systems]
Another set of drones later flies over the land firing seed-filled pods into the ground. The tech can cover areas where it’s difficult for people to manually plant trees, like the steep side of a mountain. It can also work much more quickly, with each drone capable of planting 120 seeds per minute. The companies that it works with still use human contractors on restoration projects, but the drones save time and cover more ground.

Using the baseline data before planting, Dendra can then continue returning to a site to track progress. “We can monitor each year and we can see all of the different native species starting to grow up,” Graham says. “We can also see the invasive species down to each individual plant, which means that they can come in and control those as quickly as possible.” The company first started planting via drone in 2014 (under the name of Biocarbon Engineering); in portions of some of its early sites, trees are now large enough that they’re beginning to blend into native areas. “When you’re standing at a site that you’re about to restore, when you look ahead of you, you have this barren landscape,” she says. “And then if you turn just 180 degrees and look behind you, you can see what you’ve done in the previous years. When you keep looking beyond that, you can see an area that you don’t know whether it’s native or not from that distance. It just looks like a woodland.”

[Photo: courtesy Dendra Systems]
By carefully monitoring changes with the drones and software, the company also has crucial data for selling carbon credits. As corporations turn to tree planting to offset their emissions, they need to know that the trees they’ve funded have survived, and while satellites can track older trees, the drones are a useful way to measure how small saplings are growing.

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Since it launched, the company says it has planted 8.67 million seeds across hundreds of hectares, both in Australia and elsewhere. With the new investment, it plans to continue to expand, including in North America, as quickly as possible. “We’ve got 2 billion hectares of degraded land, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is still increasing, and we’re still losing biodiversity at a rate that is estimated to be more than 10 times higher than it’s been in the last 10 million years, which just gets me every time,” Graham says. “And so, we’re spurred on by these things.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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