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Oxford AI drone tech helps restore degraded land to flora and fauna-rich habitats

10 February 2021
The Business Magazine article image for: Oxford AI drone tech helps restore degraded land to flora and fauna-rich habitats

Dendra Systems, a startup that uses custom-built drones, ecology and artificial intelligence to help the world’s biggest natural resources companies clean up and replant degraded land, is rehabilitating land 11 times faster and a third cheaper than traditional methods of remediation. Typically, this means it could replant up to 60 Ha per day - an area the size of 85 football pitches.

Working around the world to restore land on behalf of global natural resources companies, environmental tech startup Dendra said an upgrade to its technology would enable it to accelerate the rate at which it brings back natural woodland habitats for land that has been stripped of all flora and fauna. Using high-resolution imagery, Dendra Systems can map the equivalent of 400 football pitches a day per team and can identify 120 different species from the sky. The animal species identified can be as small as a lizard, up to a kangaroo.

Globally, about 25 per cent of the world’s land mass has been degraded by farming, mining, logging and other industrial processes. When land is degraded, soil carbon and nitrous oxide are released into the atmosphere, making land degradation one of the most important contributors to climate change.

Scientists recently warned that 24 billion tons of fertile soil was being lost per year, largely due to unsustainable agriculture practices. If this trend continues, 95 percent of the Earth’s land areas could become degraded by 2050.

Oxford-based Dendra Systems works with natural resources companies including Glencore, BHP and Rio Tinto, as well as public agencies and governments to reverse the impact of industrial processes including farming, mining and large road and rail building projects.

Dendra estimates that just 10 drones flying in a swarm could plant as many as 300,000 trees per day, compared to around 2,000 trees a day using traditional methods.

Susan Graham, founder of Dendra Systems, said: “Across every industry we are learning to apply new technology including artificial intelligence and data analytics to produce better outcomes at scale. Restoring the natural world is no different but the challenge of bringing wildlife back to our communities is huge from the labour intensive nature of the work to the unpredictable and devastating effects of climate change. The natural world needs our help more than many other industries where automation and AI can be applied”

“Dendra Systems was founded to capture data about the land, turn it into insights about the ecosystem so that we can identify early risks like erosion or invasive species before they derail restoration work and then take action at scale. Technology, with the possibility to make exponential change to our world, is needed if we are to restore the truly staggering amount of land that has to be remediated. For the first time, Dendra’s Generation 3 technology will dramatically speed up and reduce the cost of the work ecologists and land managers can do. It allows us to map at scale with greater depth and precision, and also to seed 10 times more land with each flight.”

“For hundreds of years we automated and industrialised the destruction of wildlife habitats, now we are starting to put right our mistakes on a large scale and for a much reduced cost.”

‍Lucy Roberts, Corporate Head HSEC and Human Rights, Glencore said: “Unlike common restoration projects, the specific features of the land and risks posed by working at mining sites limit both the speed and scalability of traditional restoration methods.”

"Dendra helps Glencore overcome these challenges by providing unprecedented insights into the condition of the land and ecosystems using ecology-driven data science and artificial intelligence. Complemented by drone-based aerial seeding which increases the rate of planting and mitigates on-site risks. Together, Glencore and Dendra are restoring thriving ecosystems.”

Susan added: “We are asked what we can see from a drone. Well we see every blade of grass, every leaf on a tree, every piece of dirt moved by ants and we analyse every bit of it. The power of the cloud means that we are able to track plant species and track fauna, ever tail and every ear, from the female Nanking Kestrel to the bearded dragon and the red necked wallaby.”

Dendra Systems was founded in the UK in 2014 and partners with some of the world’s biggest companies, in the natural resources sector and construction, to help them rehabilitate land and restore biodiverse ecosystems. In 2020, it raised US$10m from leading investors to help it continue its work, in an industry where there is global demand for solutions that can be applied at scale.

Nicky Godding is editor of The Business Magazine. Before her journalism career, she worked mainly in public relations moving into writing when she was invited to launch Retail Watch, a publication covering retail and real estate across Europe.

After some years of constant travelling, she tucked away her passport and concentrated on business writing, co-founding a successful regional business magazine. She has interviewed some of the UK’s most successful entrepreneurs who have built multi-million-pound businesses and reported on many science and technology firsts.

She reports on the region’s thriving business economy from start-ups, family businesses and multi-million-pound corporations, to the professionals that support their growth and the institutions that educate the next generation of business leaders.

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