Seeds from the sky – can drones help stop the local extinction of Alpine Ash?

Drones are being deployed to help replant native vegetation in an innovative trial by Greening Australia and AirSeed.

The partners are testing how drone use could speed up and scale climate-ready restoration of Australia’s iconic Alpine Ash forests, which are facing widespread loss due to climate change and more frequent bushfires.

The trial has distributed 48,000 seed pods across two hectares of land via AirSeed’s specialised drones at a site near Michelago, New South Wales. The seed pods contain a mixture of native seed, along with carbon, prebiotic products and nutrients to give seeds the best chance to establish quickly and successfully.

The pods themselves provide protection against seed predators and are activated once wet. Following rainfall the seeds will begin to germinate, sending roots down into soil that is also simultaneously being enriched with nutrients dissolving from the pod.

Greening Australia Program Specialist, Nicki Taws, holding the specialised seed pods which contain nutrients, minerals and microbes designed to give the seedling the best start to life possible. Image credit: Toby Peet

Zoe Birnie, Senior Technical Officer at Greening Australia, said the drone technology could unlock new restoration methods, which will be important as we face longer and more extreme bushfire seasons – like the predicted hot summer approaching.

“Sowing seed and hand planting seedlings are reliable methods for restoring complex ecosystems but can be labour intensive and even dangerous in hard-to-access landscapes where Alpine Ash are typically found, particularly if they’ve been impacted by catastrophic natural disasters like bushfires.

“We’re testing how drones can help us regenerate strategically positioned ‘restoration islands’ – dense plantings of key species including the understorey, which over time can reproduce and naturally expand across the landscape, resulting in large-scale regeneration,” said Zoe.

“The drones not only allow for widespread and rapid planting of numerous native species at once, but they can also scan, map and test optimal planting locations. They are even able to identify areas in which plantings have already taken place to maximise efficiency and accuracy,” explained Ru Maka, Chief Pilot at AirSeed.

Greening Australia and AirSeed representatives watch on as the drone takes off. Image credit: Toby Peet.

Alpine Ash are extremely tall eucalyptus trees that cover two million hectares of Australia’s landscapes. Since 1997, these forests have burned in successive fires. Alpine Ash trees do not normally produce seeds until they are 15-20 years old, which means the increasing frequency and severity of bushfires associated with climate change is preventing regeneration and driving local extinctions of whole Alpine Ash communities.

Modelling by the University of Melbourne shows that without intervention 20,000 hectares of Alpine Ash communities could be lost every 20 years as a consequence of hotter, drier conditions and more frequent bushfires.

There is urgency to act now to safeguard the future of Australian landscapes.

“We need to find new ways of working so that we can access difficult terrain, but also help improve Alpine Ash forests’ resilience and ability to adapt as we approach some really challenging times ahead with climate change,” added Zoe.

The drone seeding trial in NSW with AirSeed is the next step in Greening Australia and Minderoo Foundation’s collaboration to develop innovative technological solutions for fast-tracking restoration and improving the resilience of Australian landscapes.

The partnership has also planted over 10,500 Alpine Ash seedlings in experimental plots across NSW and Victoria in an effort to find an Alpine Ash ‘super seed’ – seed that can be used to help these forests flourish even as the climate changes.

“We have a lot of knowledge already but we don’t know the answer to everything. Being able to test, learn and share those learnings more broadly so they can also be applied to other plant communities is really important,” said Zoe.

Milica Duric, Healthy Landscapes Manager at Minderoo Foundation added, “This project is an example of how innovation can be applied to increase landscape resilience as we face more frequent and extreme bushfires.

“Minderoo Foundation is pleased to be supporting Greening Australia to design climate adapted seeds and be better prepared ahead of upcoming bushfire seasons. Now we are able to scan, map and test optimal planting designs using unique Australian drone seeding technology that can be rapidly deployed to replenish lost species after disaster events and ensure our most treasured landscapes are more resilient into the future.”

This project is part of Greening Australia and WWF-Australia’s partnership for Climate-ready Restoration.