A Seattle Startup Is Pioneering a New Way to Use Drones in Agriculture

DroneSeed is using multiple drones on remote forestland.

PILOT PROJECT: Grant Canary’s DroneSeed is the first company in the nation approved to use drone swarms to deliver agricultural payloads. Photo by Jamie Hiner.

This story appears in the July 2018 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

The replanting of forestland devastated by fire or logged for timber involves physically demanding tasks for which employers have trouble finding workers.

Veteran entrepreneur Grant Canary wondered, “What if I could harness swarms of drones fitted with an air-gun-like system that shoots seeds into the soil at speeds on par with a BB gun to plant trees faster and more cost effectively?” Canary launched DroneSeed in Oregon and later moved it to Seattle to join the city’s startup scene.

Two years later, with eight employees, DroneSeed has raised more than $3 million in venture-capital backing and has become an example of how to navigate the Federal Aviation Administration by winning FAA approval for using multiple vehicle drones with payloads under 55 pounds to spray herbicides and fertilizer. Two large timber companies have become DroneSeed customers.

Timber harvesters want safer, more effective ways to spread herbicides and fertilizers on logged forests so they can recover faster. Forestry agencies wanted the areas replanted with multiple tree species to stabilize hillsides.

Figuring out how to plant tree seeds using drones could take another year or so. Canary has hired a University of Washington forestry professor to measure success rates. But today, a single DroneSeed pilot commands up to five drones, each carrying four gallons of payload, which is sprayed for about 20 minutes during each flight. Canary’s plan calls for using drones carrying larger payloads and working in groups of 15.

“This is an emerging market that’s difficult for the FAA [and other regulatory agencies] to address,” Canary says. But DroneSeed’s operations in isolated areas allow the FAA to gather data on how drones operate together so it can ultimately decide whether to permit drone delivery for, say, Amazon packages or Chipotle burritos in populated areas.

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