Scotland needs more trees. Could robots provide the solution? asks Sandra Dick.

One is the epitome of modern technology, conceived in spotless labs and programmed by computers to carry out tasks too tricky or time-consuming for mere mortals.

And the other is at the very heart of the natural world; towering forests that play a vital role in capturing carbon, harbouring wildlife, providing playgrounds to be explored at leisure and wood to make use of.

While on the surface there may not appear to be much to connect the high-tech world of robotics with the nation’s lush woodlands, however, rising demand for millions of new trees to be planted has sparked a call for a fresh, innovative approach.

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Faced with the loss of two-thirds of available seed due to weeds, pests, drought or failure to germinate, Forestry and Land Scotland has launched an ‘Innovation Challenge’ offering funding for ideas to improve the yield from Scotland’s existing tree seed stock.

It has suggested that solutions could come from a range of modern technologies – including robotics, automation, imaging technology and physical or chemical treatments.

It’s hoped the Challenge will identify new low-cost, non-labour intense technologies that can help minimise the loss of seedlings and help meet soaring demand for new trees to help capture carbon and for use in construction and as a replacement for plastic products.

Doug Knox, for Forestry and Land Scotland, said: “Everyone knows that planting trees is probably the simplest, most effective method we have of tackling the global climate emergency through the transformation of greenhouse gases into solid, sustainable and renewable materials for construction and manufacturing.

“The demand for young trees in Scotland in 2019 was more than double what it was a decade ago. We will have to double it again within five years if we are to meet our climate change action plan commitments.

“And the Committee on Climate Change has called for the amount of tree planting to increase even further.”

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However, he pointed out that it is not simply a case of planting more trees. “Growing trees is actually a tricky business, especially in the early stages. Most tree species used in forestry are ‘masting’ species, producing good seed crops in certain years with low levels or no seed at all in intervening years.

“As much as two-thirds of that available seed can be lost through predation, weed competition, drought or simply a failure to germinate.

“That’s a substantial loss of viable material, so finding ways of meeting any or all of those challenges would greatly improve on the number of saleable tree seedlings that are grown.”

With it taking up to 20 years to create a new seed orchard – longer for certain species – there is mounting need to find a way to maximise the efficiency of current stocks and meet calls for millions of new trees to be planted in order to meet climate change needs.

Mr Knox said previous Innovation Challenges have seen ideas flood in often from unexpected sectors and even from ‘garden shed’ inventors.

“Our first Challenge was around non-chemical alternatives to controlling a particular pest. We found some people with no experience of forestry sector come forward with fantastic ideas,” he added. “It is entirely possible that someone in a garden shed with a little bit of funding could develop their idea and help us find a solution.”

Innovators who come up with potentially viable ideas are given funding and support to develop their concept, with a share of up to £485,000 available to five businesses selected for ‘pre-commercial’ contracts.

Whoever does hit on a proven solution, however, could also find lucrative markets in other countries that operate a similar style of forestry to the UK, such as Norway, Sweden, France, Denmark, Canada and the Netherlands.

Previous attempts to find a solution to seedling loss have included the use of mycorrhizae fungi to coat some seeds prior to sowing in order to improve germination and subsequent plant growth. The mycorrhizae live in or on the plants’ roots and make phosphate, nitrogen and other nutrients and water available to help boost growth.

Soil sterilisation technology has also been used to help tackle weeds, while some early work has been done using existing robotics and seed coating technology which involves covering seeds in a polymer coating. It’s thought that coating the seeds with beneficial properties such as anti-drought or bird repellent could also be explored.

One use of robotics in forestry could be in helping to sort out unviable seeds which have been previously identified by imaging technology as dead or infected with parasites, added Mr Knox.

However, the scale of Scotland’s forestry industry – Forestry and Land Scotland is responsible for growing 24 million trees a year which are transplanted to national forests – means certain technologies, such as fully-automated production lines, would be too costly and difficult to introduce on the large scale required.

Mr Knox added: “There is a lot of robotics and automation in nurseries in Europe that grow stock in little individual pots. But here we broadcast seed on prepared ground. Any solution has to be suitable for the UK market.”

Robots are increasingly finding their way into environmental solutions. Tree planting robots have been developed in Canada to plant trees up to 10 times faster than a human, at around half the cost. Meanwhile, a firm in Oxford has been looking at how to use drones to plant trees in particularly challenging landscapes.

Mr Knox added: “As well as being vital to Scotland’s effort against the climate emergency, improvements in yield would help ensure the security of future timber supply for Scotland’s thriving £1Bn forestry industry and its contribution to Scotland’s economy.”

A ‘bidder day’ event will be held at FLS’s tree nursery near Elgin next Monday. The closing date for applications via the Public Contracts Scotland portal is the 21st of August 2019.