Drone vs. Hand Planting
May 9, 2023

Drone vs. Hand Planting

Discover the groundbreaking world of tree planting as we delve into the remarkable benefits and advancements of drone seeding, challenging the age-old traditional methods.

Tree planting is usually one of the top solutions when we think about how to save the planet. Trees are kind of like a magic solution. They improve air quality, provide a habitat for wildlife, and absorb carbon dioxide emissions to mitigate climate change. Many people think that planting trees is a simple and easy task, but this is not the case. There are many methods that can be used to get the job done. The advancement of new technology has seen an evolution in the way we plant trees/ Drone seeding is a popular emerging method that uses unmanned aerial vehicles to distribute seeds quickly and efficiently. Is this new approach better than the traditional method of hand planting? In this blog, we will take a closer look at the two methods and compare the advantages and drawbacks of each approach. Whether you’re an environmentalist or just interested in the topic, read on to find some valuable insights into the world of tree planting. 

Traditional methods of planting trees

Tree planting has been around for centuries, and so there are many tried and true methods that have been developed through the generations. Two of the methods that have prevailed are hand planting and machine planting.

Hand planting involved heavy manual labour using tools such as shovels, spades and dible bards to dig holes in the ground and insert tree seedlings. This method is time-consuming and requires significant human exertion. However, it guarantees precision and control over where the trees are planted. 

Machine planting uses equipment such as tractors to dig holes, deposit seeds and then cover the holes. This method is faster than hand planting but is more costly and can cause higher destruction to the soil. It is also only possible on relatively flat slopes

Both these methods remain popular methods today, despite the uprising use of technology. 

Drone Technology

The rise of drone technology

Technology is advancing exponentially, and new and creative approaches are always being developed. Planting trees is no different. Drones have been applied to a number of forest-related tasks in recent years. These duties include tracking wildlife and conducting land surveys. These same drones are being employed for tree planting.

Drone seeding entails spreading these seeds across a vast region using specialist drones fitted with seed dispersal equipment. As part of the procedure, the desired seeds are loaded into the drone, which is then programmed to fly over the region and release the seeds at predetermined intervals.

Drone seeding explained

Drone seeding involves using drones that have seed dispersal systems installed. This allows them to plant trees over large areas quickly and efficiently. Here are the steps in the process:

  1. Planning: it is essential to first plan the planting area. Mapping software is often used to create detailed plans and determine factors such as forest density and tree species. 
  2. Loading the drone: the next step is to load the drone with the appropriate seeds. Depending on the type of drone and tree species, loading can be done by loading individual seeds or pre-packaged seed pods. 
  3. Program the flight path: the drone is then programmed to fly over the determined planting area at the pre-determined altitude and speed from step 1. The drone has GPS technology to ensure they are following the flight path.
  4. Seed dispersal: the drone released the seeds at specific pre-determined intervals and depths depending on the seed types and soil conditions.
  5. Monitoring: Once the seeds have been planted, the area is monitored to ensure germination and that the trees are successfully growing.

Benefits of drone seeding

Drone seeding is associated with numerous benefits that traditional planting methods lack.

Speed: Drone planting can plant trees up to 10 times faster than traditional methods. This means large areas are reforested at a far faster rate.

Precision: Drones can be programmed to disperse seeds at specific intervals and depths. These factors increase the chance of successful germination and tree growth. 

Cost-effective: the initial cost of a drone is certainly higher than traditional methods. However, the long-term costs are lower. Less is spent on labour, and the higher tree survival rate also results in lower costs in the long run.

Reduced risk of injury: Manual ways of planting trees is very physically demanding. Labourers may be at risk of injury from heaving, lifting and repetitive motions or accidents. Drones eliminate any risk.

Ability to reach difficult terrain: Drones have the ability to reach areas that are dangerous or impossible for humans to access. These areas may be too steep or too remote. Drones allow us to plant trees in these areas that would otherwise not be possible. 

Environmental impact: Any seed dispersal has a positive environmental impact. Trees mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, providing habitat for wildlife, improving air quality and more. 

Drawbacks of drone planting

Drones offer many advantages. However, they do come with drawbacks that must be considered:

Cost: As mentioned, the initial investment in drone planting can be high. Costs include purchasing the drone, seed dispersal systems and other potentially necessary equipment. It also involves employing a skilled operator. 

Technical challenges: drone seeding requires specialised equipment and expertise to operate. The process can be complex, especially the programming step and choosing the correct intervals and depths. It is also associated with potential technical issues such as drone malfunctions and GPS errors. 

Weather conditions: Drones cannot be used in adverse weather, such as high winds and heavy rain. This limits the time available for planting. This is especially an issue in areas with unpredictable and extreme weather often found throughout New Zealand. 

Seed viability: The viability of the seeds utilised determines how well drone seeding works. The germination rate may be low if the seeds are of poor quality or if they are not appropriate for the local soil and climate.

Environmental impact: Drone seeding does have a positive impact on the environment as it allows reforestation at efficient rates. However, drones can disturb wildlife or mistakenly damage habitats if used incorrectly. 

Hand Planting

Hand planting explained

Hand planting, also known as manual planting, is a traditional method that uses hand-held tools and equipment to plant seedlings/small trees. Hand planting has been the go-to method for centuries and continues to be widely used today. Tools used in hand planting include shovels, spades, trowels, planting bars and dibblers. As with drone planting, hand planting comes with multiple advantages and disadvantages. 

Benefits of hand planting

There are many benefits to hand planting; these include: 

Precise planting: the ability to place the seedling with our own hands allows more precision, which can increase survival and growth rates.

Hard-to-reach areas: hand planting can be ideal for tree planting in areas where heaving machinery cannot access. 

Community involvement: hand planting has often been a cool way to get communities together and participate in reforestation efforts. 

Low cost: hand planting is usually the least expensive method out of using drones and heaving machinery, and it only requires basic tools and labour. 

Environmental impact: Hand planting has little to no environmental impact. It does not require heavy machinery or involve any harmful chemicals. 

Drawbacks of hand planting

Of course, it is important to consider the potential drawbacks of hand planting. These include:

Labour intensive: hand planting has high manual labour demands, which are time-consuming and requires high amounts of energy.

Inconsistent: hand planting can result in inconsistent quality and results depending on the worker's experience. This can heavily impact the survival and growth rate of the trees. 

Limited scale: hand planting is best for small-scale projects. The larger the project, the more difficult it is to manage and coordinate teams and get the project done efficiently.

Weather-dependent: hand planting is also weather-dependent and can be limited by extreme weather conditions. 

Which method is best?

So the big question is: which method is best? Well, both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately, the best method depends on the specific project and associated goals. 

Drone seeding is best for large-scale projects where time and efficiency are prioritised. It is also best if the project is in dangerous or hard-to-access terrain. However, it is an expensive investment and can have a higher environmental impact if not handled properly.

Hand planting is best for small-scale projects in areas where heaving machinery cannot access and there are limited funds. If community involvement and precision are a goal, this is also the best option. 


Planting trees is an essential part of preserving the planet. Trees provide countless benefits such as clean air, reduced carbon emissions, providing habitat and supporting human well-being. We must recognise that planting trees may not be as easy as it first appears. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The method requires careful consideration that depends on the situation and goals of the project. Whichever method you choose, hand planting, drone seeing or even a combination, the important thing is that you are taking action and making a difference in the world. Planting trees creates a brighter, more sustainable future for everyone.