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Practical Magic

Let me drone on a moment about drones for agriculture or forestry

Dendra drones in action

Dendra drones in action. Image courtesy of Dendra Systems

As more corporate sustainability teams cultivate projects to restore biodiversity and degraded landscapes or to nurture soil carbon sequestration and other nature-based climate solutions, interest in drone technologies that can weed out the best opportunities is flourishing.

In early February, DroneDeploy, which has an active forestry practice, closed $50 million in late-stage venture funding. That brings its total backing (so far) to $142 million, more than any other drone data and software company. One declared use for this latest infusion of money is acquisition targets, which isn’t surprising given the anticipated boom in commercial drone usage: One forecast provides revenue related just to ag drones will reach about $5.9 billion by 2026, a compound annual growth rate of close to 30 percent over the next five years.

"The health, economic and workforce pressures of the last year have accelerated the adoption of drones and drone data by asset owners," noted John Tough, managing partner of Energize Ventures, which led the DroneDeploy round with AirTree, in a statement. "We anticipate continued growth as industries expand their use of visual data to streamline operations."

One example of how DroneDeploy is being used for sustainable agriculture — its customers have so far mapped 55 million acres — is its new relationship with Corteva Agriscience, which apparently owns one of the largest ag drone fleets in the world with more than 600 at its command. As part of the pact, DroneDeploy is licensing the artificial intelligence and machine learning software that Corteva uses to detect crop issues at an early stage of emergence. 

Another drone company more explicitly focused on land restoration is Dendra Systems, which is working with mining companies including BHP, Glencore and Rio Tinto to clean up and restore degraded habitats. One of the company’s jaw-dropping claims: 10 of its drones, flying in a swarm, can plant up to 300,000 trees per day, compared with 2,000 that could be propagated using "traditional" methods. It figures that up to 25 percent of the Earth’s land has been degraded, a datapoint it aims to reduce.

Dendra raised $10 million in Series A funding in September from investors including Airbus Ventures. It owns and operates its own fleet — its corporate customers hire its services for analysis or seeding applications — and uses artificial intelligence and high-resolution data capture to map land and come up with a restoration plan that takes into account a region’s unique biodiversity needs. According to the company, which has roots in the U.K. and Australia, it can identify up to 120 species of flora and fauna from its aerial vantage points.

I asked Dendra CEO Susan Graham how a corporate sustainability organization might use her company’s services. "Companies that have restoration goals could financially sponsor initiatives with local communities, NGOs and other land managers and onboard Dendra as the technology partner to support the environmental managers and accelerate the restoration efforts," she responded via email. 

Graham added that the systems also can provide a good check on those investments. "Our systems enable financial sponsors to monitor the outcomes of their investment closely across multiple projects, ensuring it is on track to meet objectives, as well as exhibiting accountability and transparency to stakeholders. The information we provide is key to determine where to invest in restoration and the value you get from doing that."

Glencore, a customer since 2018, notes that one of the biggest benefits of using the drones is their ability to navigate and gather intelligence about remote or hard-to-reach landscapes. One site where Dendra’s technology is being used actively is Lord Howe Island, off the coast of New South Wales, where the drones are helping eliminate invasive species including rodents and weeds such as cherry guava, sweet pittosporum and ground asparagus, which can outcompete native plants for nutrients. 

"Dendra Systems is bringing new technology to the island which is significantly accelerating the rate at which we can identify invasive weeds that threaten our natural fauna and degrade habitats," noted Sue Bower, flora and weed management officer with the island’s board. "This project will help build Lord Howe Island’s ecological resilience in the face of a changing climate."

There are many commercial drone companies, of course. Aside from Dendra and DroneDeploy, two other organizations with an explicit focus on agriculture, biodiversity or habitat management are Sentera, which supports agronomists, seed dealers and growers, and AgEagle Aerial Systems, which gathers crop information and even has a specialized service for hemp growers. There's also DroneSeed, which specializes in wildfire restoration. I’d love to know about others that would be of interest to the GreenBiz community. You can email suggestions to [email protected].

Update: This article was updated Feb. 26, to include a mention of DroneSeed.

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