IISc Bangalore scientists are experimenting with drone seed-bombing, and hope to plant a forest

Sriram Sharma June 14, 2017 5 min

 

“I’m basically from that area (Gauribidanur in Karnataka); son of a farmer, came to academia… keen to bring back my younger days, when the river used to flow for three to four months a year. I need to rejuvenate it,” says professor KPJ Reddy over a phone conversation. It’s quite apparent from his tone that this experiment means a lot to him.

A day earlier, on June 5, World Environment Day, Reddy, in collaboration with two other scientists at the Department of Aerodynamics, Bangalore, Dr H N Science Centre, and the Department of Forest, collectively held their first ever drone-seeding trial on the banks of river Pinakini in the Gauribidanur area in Karnataka’s Kolar district.

“What we have in mind is to at least seed 10,000 acres, and we will be doing this every year, for three consecutive years” — Professor S N Omkar  

While it’s at an experimental stage, their ultimate goal is to make the whole area green and turn inaccessible areas into forests.

“For that, the only way is to reach by air. Doing it with big aircraft is expensive, and take-offs and landings are a problem. So the only way to do it is through drones,” he says, when we meet a few days later at the IISc Campus in Bangalore. Over tea with professor S N Omkar, chief research scientist at IISc, he further elaborates on their plans. “What we have in mind is to at least seed 10,000 acres, and we will be doing this every year, for three consecutive years,” he says.

“The advantage with drones is that we have the image before dropping the seeds, and can geotag the path. Subsequently, once every three months we can fly over that area and see the impact of dropping the seeds” — Professor Omkar  

The 10,000-acre patch of land is spread around the Doddaballapur hill range, north of Bangalore. The initiative is spearheaded by a committee that’s building a 200-acre science centre in Gauribidanur. “It’s a dry area, so our interest is to bring back the rains. It’s not my idea alone. It’s a collective thing, but I am the convener or the head of that scientific committee,” says Reddy.

Also see: Yes, flying drones can be a full time job: Meet the new drone pilots of Bengaluru

“We’ve chosen one sample area in which to fly and do the seed-dropping. Now we’re trying to make a more scientific study. We want to run this project for about three years,” says Professor Omkar, who was in the news earlier this year for piloting a mind-controlled drone. “The advantage with drones is that we have the image before dropping the seeds, and can geotag the path. Subsequently, once every three months we can fly over that area and see the impact of dropping the seeds,” he explains.

The drone-dropped seeds wrapped in balls of manure and soil along the Pinakini river bed. Photo: G V Srinivas

Given the scale of the project, the World Environment Day event was just a beginning, with a learning curve ahead that presents interesting engineering challenges, he says. “We wanted to take these UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) and make appropriate gadgets to drop the seeds. In terms of dispensing the seeds, we have to develop some mechanisms so that it can be efficiently dispensed in a controlled way. Right now we can’t do that, and we make a simple air drop,” he says. The trial was also useful in figuring out on-field realities, and the kind of conditions in which they were to operate.

“The camera is put onboard — it will record everything, and map it, year-after-year, month after month. We will record, and scientifically evaluate” — Professor KPJ Reddy  

“The idea is that as soon as the monsoon sets in, the operation begins. We’ll put in a matrix — how to go about this. And then we will do it for three consecutive years. The camera is put onboard — it will record everything, and map it, year-after-year, month after month. We will record, and scientifically evaluate,” Reddy says.

IISc’s UAV department experiments with fixed wing and quadcopter designs. Photo: GV Srinivas

To increase the odds of germination, seeds were wrapped in balls of manure and soil, prepared by the Department of Forests in Kolar. Amla, tamarind, and a dozen other native tree species were chosen.

“While doing all this, we take the grassroots level people into confidence. I want the villagers to be a part of this. We have to get them excited,” Reddy says. From the on-ground footage, it’s apparent that they succeeded, with hundreds of villagers cheering the drone’s take off.

Why Drones?

“Hills are very funny. You can’t access those places, you need mountain climbers to get there. That’s why I brought the drone concept into the field,” Reddy says. He seems unfazed by the logistics of the challenge. “We have our machines, which can carry about 10kg, and will be airborne for about one hour. So I can cover 10,000 acres in about a week or so. That should not be a problem.”

Reddy says that they are also considering using Rustom, a drone built by the ADE (Aeronautical Development Establishment). “If they agree, it is free. It’s a social cause. These drones can carry two quintals. They are bomb carriers,” he says.

Also see: Buying a drone in India? It won’t end well for you

Dropping seeds instead of bombs seems like a plan that John Lennon would approve of. But these saplings will not just have to survive a dry climate but goats and other grazing animals.

“In addition to giving a green cover, I want to bring back the birds, butterflies, as well as monkeys. I grew up with them. When I was a child, this was a lush green area,” he says.

It’s not clear why the rivers ran dry; Reddy reckons it’s an effect of climate change, combined with overgrazing by goats. “I played in those forests. The river used to flow for four months a year but now sees flowing water during the rainy season. The dream is to bring it back. I don’t know if we will succeed, but I am optimistic,” he says.


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.