Land Life Company’s restoration ecologist, Gautham Ramachandra, is used to working on the ground and gathering information to help each stage of our tree planting process. Over the last few years, he has taken to the skies, flying numerous drones, to enhance our ability to collect data in a much more efficient and accurate way. We sat down with Guatham to learn about his exciting new accomplishment of becoming a licensed drone pilot and what that means for Land Life Company.
Q: First, can you explain why we use drones?
G: The scale and size of data acquired by drones is any ecologist’s dream come true. Manual monitoring and sampling is laborious and time consuming. Without drones, we would collect a small sample of data and then try to extrapolate information on the site through the dataset. With a drone, we can collect data on an entire planting, which allows us to run plot-level analyses, and then compare the performance. It also let’s us experiment with new methods to increase the survival rate of our trees. The data feedback loop then goes into improving our planting techniques and species choices for maximum effect on restoring ecosystems.
Q: How did our journey with drones begin?
G: We started collecting data with a drone on a smaller planting plot in Mexico. Soon after, we used a drone on our sites in the US and Spain, and then it became a prerequisite for all of our projects. In the beginning, it worked fine while using a smaller drone. The plots we used them for were about 15-20 hectares max. But over the years, we scaled up and wanted to do multiple 100-hectare plots. That’s when we started looking at more serious drones.
We were running through batteries, and we’d have to switch them seven or eight times! We needed a more sophisticated and environmentally-friendly way to monitor on a larger scale with drones.
We also considered the quality. If you think about being in the field and flying one drone for five hours, the lighting changes, the weather changes and winds can change. There’s a lot of unpredictability, especially in the mountainous area we work in. In Spain, for example, these small drones really couldn’t handle the winds and temperatures well. It became necessary to upgrade our fleet to match with our projects scaling up.
Q: How did we decide to move forward with more advanced drones?
G: We considered outsourcing, but after extensive research and speaking with other companies, we thought it was beneficial for Land Life Company to start its own program. It gives us much more leeway, in terms of how we use it and apply it to our applications. Bringing it in house also allows us to learn and adapt our processes.
For example, we are interested in looking at how our young trees were doing in the first five years. This helps us enormously to improve our techniques and plantings. Operators we considered hiring were more focused on collecting data on mature, standing forests.
So, we took things into our own hands. The one we have now is almost seven kilos. This type of drone puts us in a different category, and, because we are doing commercial operations, we needed to take the appropriate steps to obtain the proper certification. Part of that process required me to become a licensed pilot. It’s much different than casually using a drone for a hobby like photography.
Q: Tell us about becoming a licensed drone pilot?
G: The Netherlands specifically does not see a difference between flying a drone or a Cessna or a hang gliding plane. All the testing and theory I completed was essentially the same as if I was going to become an actual pilot. You learn about the basics of aviation, how things fly, why they fly, what you’re supposed to do and how planes move around. It was really interesting!
Q: What has been challenging in this process?
G: As precision agriculture started using drones first, our challenge was to adapt the technology to forestry/reforestation, which is what we are continuing to successfully do. We are one among a handful of companies using drones and algorithms to guide the design and planting process, as well as to monitor and provide near real time updates to our customers.
But the benefits definitely outweigh the challenges. Using drones has given us a lot of freedom on how we can best approach planting before the trees go in the ground, as well as what we learn after they’ve been planted. It also helps us manage much larger planting sites with increased accuracy and fewer people – it’s an all-around more efficient way of monitoring our projects. Drones also allow us to minimize risks and, eventually, costs.
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