A consortia using drone technology to revolutionise how landowners, environmentalists and conservationists manage the UK’s vast peatland carbon sink resources has today unveiled its programme to deliver the UK’s first carbon negative aviation project.
Project “Drone RePeat” was recently awarded £500,000 from Natural England’s Paludiculture Exploration Fund to increase awareness of Paludiculture and carbon sink management through greater use of emerging technologies and new agronomy methods.
With a focus on promoting sustainable land use practices that are environmentally friendly, socially beneficial and economically viable, the programme seeks to use drones to survey, analyse then precision-spray peatlands to seed Paludiculture crops and monitor irrigation and carbon depletion from the soil. This also creates new ways for landowners to realise value from these difficult-to-manage landscapes.
To scale the project and its carbon negative mandate, SEAD Artists is working closely with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to unlock ultra-low level airspace. The aim is to allow regular airspace access for landowners, asset managers and contractors to use agri-drones and other innovative technologies in low-level airspace above farmland and peatland.
Andrew Sproson, co-founder of Autospray Systems and Project Lead for Project Drone RePeat said: “We’re genuinely excited by the potential drones have to revolutionise the UK’s paludiculture industry. The ability to operate drones over greater distances increases efficiency, creating a framework that allows for scalability and easier drone adoption. This in turn not only enables drone spraying and spreading for current and future peat restoration projects, but crucially enables the creation of a commercial market for lowland land owners across the UK, encouraging wider adoption.
“Preserving England’s largest carbon sink is as important as reducing the speed at which the world’s icebergs are melting – once it has degraded, peatland takes centuries to re-establish, but the crops and moss identified through our trials have been proven to preserve peat and thus contribute towards reducing the benchmark of peat emissions.
Gareth Whatmore, project partner and founder of DronePrep, which was the architect of the first real-world drone deliveries in England and Scotland for the NHS and Royal Mail, said: “Peat is England’s single largest carbon store, with 1 million acres of peat soils storing 584m tonnes of carbon – that’s the equivalent of 540 coal-fired power stations! Peat takes millennia to generate and bogs store 10 times more carbon than forests.
“Degradation and draining mean these peatlands emit around 11 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere every year so improving their management, or restoring them by rewetting the peat, is a key part of the UK’s Net Zero strategy.
“The challenge for landowners is that growing crops or restoring peatland means the peat soils are wet with high water tables and it is difficult to use existing agricultural machinery, due to its bogging and inaccessible nature.
“Our work has demonstrated that tech solutions, such as the use of drones, can not only help landowners manage their peatland and plant crops to preserve peat stocks but can also support the growing of new, peat-hardy crops that can be manufactured into Net Zero clothing or construction materials.”
Most drones are powered by electricity and Drone RePeat’s calculations suggest the potential carbon gains that could be realised by managing this important-but-delicate landscape through reduced peatland degradation, maintenance of large carbon sinks and the commercial exploitation of peat-hardy crops, will effectively make the drone flights enabling this approach carbon negative.
Gareth continued: “To respond to the climate emergency, the Drone RePeat team has also formed a partnership called SEAD Artists to explore how innovative technologies can be applied to future carbon management and climate credit schemes that can bring external investment. One such application outside of the Paludiculture project is focussed on programmes to plant trees via drones at scale. We call on all COP28 delegates and Climate Fund Managers to create a service that allows companies to invest in this technology to match their COP28 objectives and carbon liabilities.”
Aleks Kowalski, project manager of Drone RePeat added: “Developing an ecosystem of surveillance, spraying, monitoring and the verifying the data will be crucial to achieving a carbon negative aviation system. SEAD Artists is a consortia built to achieve operations at scale.”
Jim Milner, Natural England – Paludiculture Exploration Fund project manager, said: The Paludiculture exploration fund aims to explore new crops and products that can grow on wet peat soils. As Gareth says, this creates challenges in managing those new crops we hope to develop and new solutions are needed. This is where SEAD Artists fits in and it is great to see how the team at Drone RePeat is connecting with the wider Paludiculture community.”