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DroneSeed is planting trees from the air – TechCrunch

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Wildfires are consuming our forests and grasslands faster than we can replace them. It’s a vicious cycle of destruction and inadequate restoration rooted, so to speak, in decades of neglect of the institutions and technologies needed to keep these environments healthy.

DroneSeed is a Seattle-based startup that aims to combat this growing problem with a modern toolkit that scales: drones, artificial intelligence and biological engineering. And it’s even more complicated than it sounds.

Trees in decline

A bit of background first. The problem of disappearing forests is a complex one, but it boils down to a few major factors: climate change, outdated methods and shrinking budgets (and as you can imagine, all three are related).

Forest fires are a natural occurrence, of course. And they’re necessary, as you’ve likely read, to sort of clear the deck for new growth to take hold. But climate change, monoculture growth, population increases, lack of control burns and other factors have led to these events taking place not just more often, but more extensively and to more permanent effect.

On average, the U.S. is losing 7 million acres a year. That’s not easy to replace to begin with — and as budgets for the likes of national and state forest upkeep have shrunk continually over the last half century, there have been fewer and fewer resources with which to combat this trend.

The most effective and common reforestation technique for a recently burned woodland is human planters carrying sacks of seedlings and manually selecting and placing them across miles of landscapes. This back-breaking work is rarely done by anyone for more than a year or two, so labor is scarce and turnover is intense.

Even if the labor was available on tap, the trees might not be. Seedlings take time to grow in nurseries and a major wildfire might necessitate the purchase and planting of millions of new trees. It’s impossible for nurseries to anticipate this demand, and the risk associated with growing such numbers on speculation is more than many can afford. One missed guess could put the whole operation underwater.

Meanwhile, if nothing gets planted, invasive weeds move in with a vengeance, claiming huge areas that were once old growth forests. Lacking the labor and tree inventory to stem this possibility, forest keepers resort to a stopgap measure: use helicopters to drench the area in herbicides to kill weeds, then saturate it with fast-growing cheatgrass or the like. (The alternative to spraying is, again, the manual approach: machetes.)

At least then, in a year, instead of a weedy wasteland, you have a grassy monoculture — not a forest, but it’ll do until the forest gets here.

One final complication: helicopter spraying is a horrendously dangerous profession. These pilots are flying at sub-100-foot elevations, performing high-speed maneuvers so that their sprays reach the very edge of burn zones but they don’t crash head-on into the trees. This is an extremely dangerous occupation: 80 to 100 crashes occur every year in the U.S. alone.

In short, there are more and worse fires and we have fewer resources — and dated ones at that — with which to restore forests after them.

These are facts anyone in forest ecology and logging are familiar with, but perhaps not as well known among technologists. We do tend to stay in areas with cell coverage. But it turns out that a boost from the cloistered knowledge workers of the tech world — specifically those in the Emerald City — may be exactly what the industry and ecosystem require.

Simple idea, complex solution

So what’s the solution to all this? Automation, right?

Automation, especially via robotics, is proverbially suited for jobs that are “dull, dirty, and dangerous.” Restoring a forest is dirty and dangerous to be sure. But dull isn’t quite right. It turns out that the process requires far more intelligence than anyone was willing, it seems, to apply to the problem — with the exception of those planters. That’s changing.

Earlier this year, DroneSeed was awarded the first multi-craft, over-55-pounds unmanned aerial vehicle license ever issued by the FAA. Its custom UAV platforms, equipped with multispectral camera arrays, high-end lidar, six-gallon tanks of herbicide and proprietary seed dispersal mechanisms have been hired by several major forest management companies, with government entities eyeing the service as well.

These drones scout a burned area, mapping it down to as high as centimeter accuracy, including objects and plant species, fumigate it efficiently and autonomously, identify where trees would grow best, then deploy painstakingly designed seed-nutrient packages to those locations. It’s cheaper than people, less wasteful and dangerous than helicopters and smart enough to scale to national forests currently at risk of permanent damage.

I met with the company’s team at their headquarters near Ballard, where complete and half-finished drones sat on top of their cases and the air was thick with capsaicin (we’ll get to that).

The idea for the company began when founder and CEO Grant Canary burned through a few sustainable startup ideas after his last company was acquired, and was told, in his despondency, that he might have to just go plant trees. Canary took his friend’s suggestion literally.

“I started looking into how it’s done today,” he told me. “It’s incredibly outdated. Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees. They’re being paid to move material over mountainous terrain and be a simple AI and determine where to plant trees where they will grow — microsites. We are now able to do both these functions with drones. This allows those same workers to address much larger areas faster without the caloric wear and tear.”

It may not surprise you to hear that investors are not especially hot on forest restoration (I joked that it was a “growth industry” but really because of the reasons above it’s in dire straits).

But investors are interested in automation, machine learning, drones and especially government contracts. So the pitch took that form. With the money DroneSeed secured, it has built its modestly sized but highly accomplished team and produced the prototype drones with which is has captured several significant contracts before even announcing that it exists.

“We definitely don’t fit the mold or metrics most startups are judged on. The nice thing about not fitting the mold is people double take and then get curious,” Canary said. “Once they see we can actually execute and have been with 3 of the 5 largest timber companies in the U.S. for years, they get excited and really start advocating hard for us.”

The company went through Techstars, and Social Capital helped them get on their feet, with Spero Ventures joining up after the company got some groundwork done.

If things go as DroneSeed hopes, these drones could be deployed all over the world by trained teams, allowing spraying and planting efforts in nurseries and natural forests to take place exponentially faster and more efficiently than they are today. It’s genuine change-the-world-from-your-garage stuff, which is why this article is so long.

Hunter (weed) killers

The job at hand isn’t simple or even straightforward. Every landscape differs from every other, not just in the shape and size of the area to be treated but the ecology, native species, soil type and acidity, type of fire or logging that cleared it and so on. So the first and most important task is to gather information.

For this, DroneSeed has a special craft equipped with a sophisticated imaging stack. This first pass is done using waypoints set on satellite imagery.

The information collected at this point is really far more detailed than what’s actually needed. The lidar, for instance, collects spatial information at a resolution much beyond what’s needed to understand the shape of the terrain and major obstacles. It produces a 3D map of the vegetation as well as the terrain, allowing the system to identify stumps, roots, bushes, new trees, erosion and other important features.

This works hand in hand with the multispectral camera, which collects imagery not just in the visible bands — useful for identifying things — but also in those outside the human range, which allows for in-depth analysis of the soil and plant life.

The resulting map of the area is not just useful for drone navigation, but for the surgical strikes that are necessary to make this kind of drone-based operation worth doing in the first place. No doubt there are researchers who would love to have this data as well.

Now, spraying and planting are very different tasks. The first tends to be done indiscriminately using helicopters, and the second by laborers who burn out after a couple of years — as mentioned above, it’s incredibly difficult work. The challenge in the first case is to improve efficiency and efficacy, while in the second case is to automate something that requires considerable intelligence.

Spraying is in many ways simpler. Identifying invasive plants isn’t easy, exactly, but it can be done with imagery like that the drones are collecting. Having identified patches of a plant to be eliminated, the drones can calculate a path and expend only as much herbicide is necessary to kill them, instead of dumping hundreds of gallons indiscriminately on the entire area. It’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Naturally, the opposite approach could be used for distributing fertilizer or some other agent.

I’m making it sound easy again. This isn’t a plug and play situation — you can’t buy a DJI drone and hit the “weedkiller” option in its control software. A big part of this operation was the creation not only of the drones themselves, but the infrastructure with which to deploy them.

Conservation convoy

The drones themselves are unique, but not alarmingly so. They’re heavy-duty craft, capable of lifting well over the 57 pounds of payload they carry (the FAA limits them to 115 pounds).

“We buy and gut aircraft, then retrofit them,” Canary explained simply. Their head of hardware, would probably like to think there’s a bit more to it than that, but really the problem they’re solving isn’t “make a drone” but “make drones plant trees.” To that end, Canary explained, “the most unique engineering challenge was building a planting module for the drone that functions with the software.” We’ll get to that later.

DroneSeed deploys drones in swarms, which means as many as five drones in the air at once — which in turn means they need two trucks and trailers with their boxes, power supplies, ground stations and so on. The company’s VP of operations comes from a military background where managing multiple aircraft onsite was part of the job, and she’s brought her rigorous command of multi-aircraft environments to the company.

The drones take off and fly autonomously, but always under direct observation by the crew. If anything goes wrong, they’re there to take over, though of course there are plenty of autonomous behaviors for what to do in case of, say, a lost positioning signal or bird strike.

They fly in patterns calculated ahead of time to be the most efficient, spraying at problem areas when they’re over them, and returning to the ground stations to have power supplies swapped out before returning to the pattern. It’s key to get this process down pat, since efficiency is a major selling point. If a helicopter does it in a day, why shouldn’t a drone swarm? It would be sad if they had to truck the craft back to a hangar and recharge them every hour or two. It also increases logistics costs like gas and lodging if it takes more time and driving.

This means the team involves several people, as well as several drones. Qualified pilots and observers are needed, as well as people familiar with the hardware and software that can maintain and troubleshoot on site — usually with no cell signal or other support. Like many other forms of automation, this one brings its own new job opportunities to the table.

AI plays Mother Nature

The actual planting process is deceptively complex.

The idea of loading up a drone with seeds and setting it free on a blasted landscape is easy enough to picture. Hell, it’s been done. There are efforts going back decades to essentially load seeds or seedlings into guns and fire them out into the landscape at speeds high enough to bury them in the dirt: in theory this combines the benefits of manual planting with the scale of carpeting the place with seeds.

But whether it was slapdash placement or the shock of being fired out of a seed gun, this approach never seemed to work.

Forestry researchers have shown the effectiveness of finding the right “microsite” for a seed or seedling; in fact, it’s why manual planting works as well as it does. Trained humans find perfect spots to put seedlings: in the lee of a log; near but not too near the edge of a stream; on the flattest part of a slope, and so on. If you really want a forest to grow, you need optimal placement, perfect conditions and preventative surgical strikes with pesticides.

Although it’s difficult, it’s also the kind of thing that a machine learning model can become good at. Sorting through messy, complex imagery and finding local minima and maxima is a specialty of today’s ML systems, and the aerial imagery from the drones is rich in relevant data.

The company’s CTO led the creation of an ML model that determines the best locations to put trees at a site — though this task can be highly variable depending on the needs of the forest. A logging company might want a tree every couple of feet, even if that means putting them in sub-optimal conditions — but a few inches to the left or right may make all the difference. On the other hand, national forests may want more sparse deployments or specific species in certain locations to curb erosion or establish sustainable firebreaks.

Once the data has been crunched, the map is loaded into the drones’ hive mind and the convoy goes to the location, where the craft are loaded with seeds instead of herbicides.

But not just any old seeds! You see, that’s one more wrinkle. If you just throw a sagebrush seed on the ground, even if it’s in the best spot in the world, it could easily be snatched up by an animal, roll or wash down to a nearby crevasse, or simply fail to find the right nutrients in time despite the planter’s best efforts.

That’s why DroneSeed’s head of Planting and his team have been working on a proprietary seed packet that they were unbelievably reticent to detail.

From what I could gather, they’ve put a ton of work into packaging the seeds into nutrient-packed little pucks held together with a biodegradable fiber. The outside is dusted with capsaicin, the chemical that makes spicy food spicy (and also what makes bear spray do what it does). If they hadn’t told me, I might have guessed, since the workshop area was hazy with it, leading us all to cough and tear up a little. If I were a marmot, I’d learn to avoid these things real fast.

The pucks, or “seed vessels,” can and must be customized for the location and purpose — you have to match the content and acidity of the soil, things like that. DroneSeed will have to make millions of these things, but it doesn’t plan to be the manufacturer.

Finally these pucks are loaded in a special puck-dispenser which, closely coordinating with the drone, spits one out at the exact moment and speed needed to put it within a few centimeters of the microsite.

All these factors should improve the survival rate of seedlings substantially. That means that the company’s methods will not only be more efficient, but more effective. Reforestation is a numbers game played at scale, and even slight improvements — and DroneSeed is promising more than that — are measured in square miles and millions of tons of biomass.

Proof of life

DroneSeed has already signed several big contracts for spraying, and planting is next. Unfortunately, the timing on their side meant they missed this year’s planting season, though by doing a few small sites and showing off the results, they’ll be in pole position for next year.

After demonstrating the effectiveness of the planting technique, the company expects to expand its business substantially. That’s the scaling part — again, not easy, but easier than hiring another couple thousand planters every year.

Ideally the hardware can be assigned to local teams that do the on-site work, producing loci of activity around major forests from which jobs can be deployed at large or small scales. A set of five or six drones does the work of one helicopter, roughly speaking, so depending on the volume requested by a company or forestry organization, you may need dozens on demand.

That’s all yet to be explored, but DroneSeed is confident that the industry will see the writing on the wall when it comes to the old methods, and identify them as a solution that fits the future.

If it sounds like I’m cheerleading for this company, that’s because I am. It’s not often in the world of tech startups that you find a group of people not just attempting to solve a serious problem — it’s common enough to find companies hitting this or that issue — but who have spent the time, gathered the expertise and really done the dirty, boots-on-the-ground work that needs to happen so it goes from great idea to real company.

That’s what I felt was the case with DroneSeed, and here’s hoping their work pays off — for their sake, sure, but mainly for ours.

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iOS 14.7.1 and macOS 11.5.1 arrive with one bug fix and one security fix

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Enlarge / Apple executive Craig Federighi unveiled iOS 15 this summer. That version is coming later this year.

Apple has issued a new software update for iPhones, iPads, and Macs just a few days after the company launched macOS 10.15 and iOS/iPadOS 14.7.

The updates add no new features, but the iPhone update fixes one bug. From Apple’s release notes:

iOS 14.7.1 fixes an issue where iPhone models with Touch ID cannot unlock a paired Apple Watch using the Unlock with iPhone feature. This update also provides important security updates and is recommended for all users.

As for macOS, there are no listed changes besides security updates. And Apple lists the same security update for iOS, iPadOS, and macOS. Here are the details from Apple’s support hub:

IOMobileFrameBuffer

Available for: iPhone 6s and later, iPad Pro (all models), iPad Air 2 and later, iPad 5th generation and later, iPad mini 4 and later, and iPod touch (7th generation)

Impact: An application may be able to execute arbitrary code with kernel privileges. Apple is aware of a report that this issue may have been actively exploited.

Description: A memory corruption issue was addressed with improved memory handling.

CVE-2021-30807: an anonymous researcher

Last week, Apple released software updates for all its platforms, including iOS 14.7, iPadOS 14.7, and macOS 10.15. Among other things, iOS 14.7 added support for the new MagSafe Battery Pack accessory, introduced a new multiuser Apple Card Family feature, and made several small tweaks throughout the operating system. macOS 10.15 was a smaller update that came a few days later; it simply added a new way to sort shows in the Podcasts app and fixed a couple of bugs.

Apple’s software releases tend to follow a common pattern. Top-level numbers like “iOS 13” or “iOS 13” are annual releases that introduce a bunch of significant new features or changes. Then, any update with a number after one decimal point (like iOS 14.7) adds at least one new feature and a handful of bug fixes. When you see another number after another decimal point—as in this case with iOS 14.7.1—you’re usually looking at an update that targets one or two bugs or security vulnerabilities but doesn’t add new features.

Today’s follow-up software updates are available to all supported devices right now.

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Report: The iPhone 14 will be a major upgrade, and it will be made of titanium

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Enlarge / The back of the iPhone 12 Pro.

Samuel Axon

A new investor note from JPMorgan Chase seen by AppleInsider and MacRumors claims that Apple’s high-end iPhone models will soon use titanium alongside or instead of aluminum or stainless steel. It also provides new insights about what to expect from 2022’s iPhone lineup.

Drawing from supply line sources, the note says the materials change is coming in 2022 and that Foxconn will be Apple’s exclusive supplier for the titanium components. The Pro model phones from that year are likely to use a titanium alloy, which is stronger and more resistant to scratches than the stainless steel used in current iPhone models.

While the analyst report does not specify, it’s very likely that we’re talking about the metallic band around the edge of the iPhone, not the front and the back. The front is expected to still be glass, and given that Apple continues to introduce new MagSafe and wireless charging products and features, we expect the back to remain glass as well.

The report also says the iPhone 14 will see more significant changes than the iPhone 13, suggesting that this year’s new iPhones will be spec bumps with minor new features akin to past iPhone launches with an “-S” appended to the products’ names. Meanwhile, the iPhone 14 in 2022 will bring with it a redesign of sorts and major new features, akin to the iPhone X or iPhone 12.

Additionally, JPMorgan Chase corroborates another recent report that Apple will not produce an iPhone 14 mini. That report, from Nikkei Asia, claimed that Apple will sometime in 2022 introduce a 5G iPhone SE with the latest, fastest CPU and the same look and feel as the current iPhone SE—but that this will be a death knell for the iPhone mini, which was introduced as part of the iPhone 12 lineup in 2020 but which has failed to meet sales expectations.

Currently, Apple offers two options for users of small, one-handed phones. There’s the iPhone SE, which emphasizes low cost by using older technologies like an LCD display and the home button. And there’s the iPhone 12 mini, which places the latest chip, screen, and camera tech Apple has to offer in a smaller chassis at a price close to that of the other flagships.

Based on the insights from Nikkei and JPMorgan Chase, it appears that Apple will soon relegate small phones to the budget bin (or midrange bin, you could really argue), with the most expensive flagships with the latest features staying big.

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Here’s the first credible Microsoft Surface Duo 2 leak

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The Surface Duo was one of the biggest hardware flops in recent memory, but Microsoft is still charging ahead with a sequel to the device, and now we have the first credible pictures of it. The story here is kind of weird. We’re not actually sure where the pictures are from (they’ve been uploaded to this random YouTube channel with other uncredited content), but Windows Central’s Zac Bowden says the images are legit, and since he has had an impeccable history of nailing Surface Duo rumors, his affirmation is good enough for us. Bowden calls the two devices shown off in the leak “near-final prototypes.”

The most obvious change in the pictures is a huge camera bump on the back of the device. The bump houses three cameras, along with what looks like an LED flash to the right and one more sensor, perhaps laser autofocus, just below the flash. The standalone fingerprint reader on the side is gone (Windows Central speculates it will be integrated into the power button), and the USB-C port on the bottom is now centered. Sadly, we don’t know what the inside looks like yet.

The Surface Duo 1 never had a good camera solution—in fact, it didn’t have a rear camera at all. Cameras are one of the biggest thickness demands on a phone body (hence the camera bumps), and the Surface Duo, being one of the thinnest phones ever made (at only 4.8 mm thick for each half), simply didn’t have room for a good camera. The device only got one low-quality front camera, and since the phone was foldable, it could pull double-duty as a rear camera, too.

Skipping out on a rear camera for the Duo 1 wasn’t the only solution Microsoft tried, though—early prototypes showed a rear camera with a corresponding divot on the other half of the device, allowing the proto-Duo to have a rear camera bump and still fold flat. This Duo 2 prototype has a big camera bump but no divot on the other side, so it looks like it won’t fold flat? A big selling point of the first Duo was the 360 hinge and the ability to use it in single-screen mode if you wanted, but it seems like that feature is being compromised.

Another problem with the Duo 1 was its weird and out-of-date spec sheet, but many of the device’s technical shortcomings will be fixed in the sequel. Windows Central says the phone will ship with a modern SoC—the Snapdragon 888—along with NFC, one of the more bizarre omissions of the Duo 1. The phone should ship sometime in September or October.

Is Microsoft changing enough?

The Surface Duo 1 was Microsoft’s first-ever self-branded Android phone and the company’s first swing at a smartphone since the Nokia Windows Phone days. By all accounts, the Duo 1 was a disaster. In our time with it, we experienced a ton of bugs and glaring software deficiencies like its poor keyboard. But our big takeaway was that the form factor didn’t work. Even when folded up, the Duo 1 was significantly wider than any other device on the market, eclipsing even historically huge phones like the Nexus 6 by 10 mm, which made it uncomfortable to hold or shove into a pocket. Android doesn’t scale well to ultra-wide screens (tall is fine, wide is not), so the phone didn’t show much content.

The two-screen design also wasn’t that compelling. A tablet or foldable can offer similar side-by-side app action and also provide the flexibility of a single, big screen for videos and tablet apps, which isn’t viable on the split-screen Duo. The Duo also didn’t have a front screen for notifications, which is a standard feature on every other foldable device like the Galaxy Fold and Flip, the Moto Razr, and the Xiaomi and Huawei foldables. When your phone beeps, you want to be able to glance at it to see the notification without having to use two hands to open and close the device. It does not seem like any of these issues will be addressed in the sequel.

The Surface Duo was a failure in the market, too, with discounts starting nearly immediately. Today, the sky-high $1,400 MSRP is down to almost $1,000 off. The hottest fire sale saw Duos being unloaded for $409, but today, these things are just sitting around in Amazon warehouses for $419, and they still aren’t selling out. You would think that a serious market flop like the Duo 1 would lead to dramatic changes in the sequel, but Microsoft does not seem deterred.

The company can at least fix some of the buggy software and out-of-date hardware it shipped with the Duo 1. But if you weren’t a fan of the concept before, the Duo 2 isn’t trying to do much to change your mind.

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