Dendra UAV Pilot with Aerial Seeding Drone.jpg
by Lombard Odier

Reforesting the planet using seed-spitting drones from the air

On a barren hillside in the immensity of Australia’s outback, two large drones sit on the ground, each of their propellers gathering speed as the machines gently lift off and start to rise upwards into a clear-blue sky.

The remote and difficult-to-access setting would make for a perfect getaway for any drone enthusiast. But the two people operating these large white unmanned aerial vehicles work for Dendra Systems, and they have a startlingly ambitious goal: to reforest the surrounding areas and nurse them back to environmental health.

Founded in the UK in 2014, Dendra Systems uses a combination of ecological expertise, artificial intelligence and technological hardware to reforest areas around the world that have been damaged by mining, intensive agriculture, fires or other disruptive forces.

Using a proprietary system for analysing topography and habitats, its drones plant seeds by air dramatically speeding up traditional planting methods and making it easier to access remote or hard-to-get-to places.

Long term, says Susan Graham, the company’s chief executive officer, Dendra’s ambition is to reforest diverse geographies at a scale sufficient to help solve one of humanity’s biggest challenges: to halt global warming by restoring the planet’s natural habitats.

“We can supercharge interventions and restore ecosystems ranging from a single industrial site to entire forests and more,” she explains. “Aerial seeding from drones gives you that super power.”

Deforestation is one of the world’s biggest causes of environmental degradation. Because trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the loss of forests and woodland areas is also a dangerous contributor to the build-up of greenhouse gases, which cause global warming.

Wildfires have increased in intensity in recent years. Last year alone, the US state of California recorded its biggest modern-era loss of forest, with 4.2m acres burned. In the 2019-2020 bushfires, Australia lost an estimated 46m acres. In one study on the immediate environmental impact, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) calculated that more than 3bn vertebrates were affected – with some endangered species driven to extinction.

The WWF points out that forests around the world are also under threat from agriculture and, in particular, from illegal logging. In 2019 alone, the tropics lost almost 30 soccer fields’ worth of trees every minute due to logging and clearing the land for cattle and other agriculture.

Companies and societies have to distance themselves from a Wasteful, Idle, Lopsided and Dirty (WILD) economy, which lies behind the deforestation of recent years. The subsequent transition to a circular, lean, inclusive, clean (CLIC™) economy will inevitably produce winners and losers in the corporate landscape. But those contributing towards a circular economy through helping to restore the natural environment will be more likely to emerge as the leaders of tomorrow’s new economy.

Dendra Systems, which was founded with the express aim of reforesting the planet, and has already completed more than 40 projects in 11 countries, looks to be on the right path.

The company, which has 50 employees and has so far raised just over $10m in series A funding, begins its reforesting process with a detailed aerial study of the terrain under scrutiny. The cameras mounted on its drones can pinpoint a single blade of grass, and the drones can remain airborne for up to two hours at a time, covering hundreds of hectares in a single day.

The data is then analysed by Dendra’s team of ecologists, who tag and detect plant species and other important data captured in the images in order to develop insights to create an accurate ecosystem understanding. Dendra is also developing visual-recognition artificial intelligence that can carry out many of these identification tasks, making the process even more agile.

“By applying ecologically-trained AI to that data, we can understand how each aspect of the ecosystem is trending and identify early risks like erosion and invasive species before they derail restoration work,” says Graham. “We turn data about the land into insight about the ecosystem.”

The data captured by the cameras also feed machine-learning algorithms that use the information to design the most efficient flightpaths for seeding the ground with different varieties of trees and other vegetation carefully selected to match the habitat.

Once their routes have been determined, Dendra’s drones zig-zag just a few metres above a given area dropping seeds with unerring precision and at a rate of about one every second thanks to a specially designed dispenser that hangs under the drone and that can carry hundreds of seeds at a time.

Aerial seeding can plant over terrain without human contact or the use of heavy machinery, which risks compressing and aggravating the soil. It can also save time and money by reforesting areas roughly 75 times faster than ground-based methods.

Ideas come in many forms, but the best ones often start out small and grow over time. In Dendra Systems’ case, its contribution to the CLIC™ economy is borne out with every seed that it plants.

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A new plan to address the growing appetite for greener aluminium

The London Metal Exchange plans to launch a platform which trades ‘low-carbon’ aluminium mostly produced with renewable energy, marking the first time a metal would have been traded based on its environmental footprint in the exchange’s 143-year history.

The LME wants the spot trading platform to go live this year, connecting buyers and sellers of aluminium that meets certain low-carbon criteria.

The move reflects the growing appetite among companies and investors for disclosure of environmental, social and governance data. It comes after pressure from En+, owner of Russian producer Rusal, for the LME to force suppliers of the lightweight metal to disclose their carbon footprint on the exchange.

Last month En+ Group pledged to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 with a reduction of at least 35 per cent by 2030, the most demanding near-term target yet set by any global aluminium company.

“We have now moved on to the next great emerging challenge of ESG in metals, which is environmental,” said LME chief executive Matt Chamberlain. The new trading platform would help determine if consumers were willing to pay a premium for low-carbon aluminium, Mr Chamberlain added.

The metal is a key input for companies such as tech giant Apple and for electric-car makers. It is also increasingly being used as an alternative to plastics in bottles. But its production requires large amounts of electricity, as well as the mining of bauxite and the refining of alumina.

Producers that use renewable sources of electricity have a much smaller carbon footprint. The production of one tonne of aluminium in Europe, which mostly uses renewable energy, produces about four tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent, compared with 15 tonnes in China, according to consultancy CRU. China produces more than 60 per cent of the world’s aluminium, mostly from coal-fired power.

But the LME is facing some pushback against its plans.

Norwegian group Norsk Hydro and India’s Hindalco Industries said they both opposed the LME’s proposals.

Hilde Merete Aasheim, chief executive of Norsk Hydro, told the Financial Times that a separate contract for low-carbon aluminium risked weakening standards and its own efforts to decarbonise the energy-intensive industry.

“We are a little bit afraid you will commoditise a specialised product,” Ms Aasheim said. “There are a number of green products out there — you have to be precise about what is your [carbon] content, it’s not one standard calculation.”

Ms Aasheim said Norsk Hydro worried that the LME’s exchange would “bundle” multiple low-carbon standards together and set a threshold for “green aluminium” that was too low.

Norsk Hydro sells aluminium with a carbon footprint of less than 4 kilogrammes of CO2 per kg of aluminium because of its use of hydropower, compared to an average of 8.6kg CO2 for aluminium consumed in Europe and 20kg in China.

Meanwhile, Satish Pai, managing director of Hindalco Industries, said a potential focus on the energy used to produce aluminium ran the risk of overlooking other issues in the supply chain, such as the mining of bauxite.

“The concept of green aluminium is being hijacked for economic benefits by a few companies,” Mr Pai said. “It’s a concept that needs to be looked at from a holistic environmental and sustainability point of view across the whole value chain.”

“The LME is a place to bring buyers and sellers together [and] they should stick to their mandate,” he added.

The two companies’ positions are at odds with those of En+, the hydropower and metals group formerly controlled by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Late last year the group said that the LME should go further and require every aluminium producer to disclose its carbon footprint to the exchange.

“We welcome all views in respect of our proposed sustainability strategy and are considering the feedback we’ve received as part of the discussion paper process,” the LME said.

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