Dr Rhiannon Smith from New England University spent 14 years working with the cotton industry, researching benefits for cotton growers by retaining and managing Australian native vegetation. She said the cotton industry now had a lot of information about native vegetation, and wanted more trees on their farms.
She is a member of the three year project trialling cost effective methods for broadacre revegetation on very heavy clay soils in semi-arid environments.
Drones hover about two metres above the ground and the air rifle shoots seeds into the ground at about 40 metres per secondDr Rhiannon Smith
Drones are one option being considered.
"What we are looking for is a quick and easy method to get trees up and growing," Dr Smith said.
"So, we are looking at drones at the moment. We've brought them in in partnership with BioCarbon Engineering from the UK.
"They are planting in Australia at the moment, including mine restoration sites."
The drones are two-metres in diameter and have a 15 kilogram payload. They use modified air rifles to fire seed pellets into the ground, sow one hectare in 18 minutes and can distribute 400 kilograms of seed a day.
"Drones hover about two metres above the ground and the air rifle shoots seeds into the ground at about 40 metres per second," Dr Smith said.
Drones were used in revegetation projects in the United Kingdom and South-East Asian mangroves, and the company is working on models capable of carrying larger payloads.
A new one-pass, direct seeding process behind a tractor has also been redeveloped by seedbed film company OneCrop and machinery manufacturer Norseman.
Plastic film is used extensively across the world for agricultural purposes. Laid on the ground at sowing, the film helps retain moisture and warmth in the seedbed while seeds germinate. The non-degradable film has proven environmentally disastrous. China tries to dispose of about two million tonnes of it annually.
OneCrop has developed a degradable film based on non-GMO corn starch, and Norseman's new planter lays the film and plants into it in one pass.
"We're doing the logical thing and treating trees as a crop," Dr Smith said.
"This way, we can take the cotton industry's deep knowledge of cropping and apply those principles to revegetation," Dr Smith said.
Dr Smith said the project was context specific for growers and there would always be those slow to adopt new ideas.
"It's about finding options for those who are looking for them. At the moment they may not have any options," she said.
"We have to be very careful about where we choose to put the trees. In those landscapes, in particular west of Narrabri, traditionally there wouldn't have been very many trees on the floodplain.
"It would have been very open grassland. Because to that shrink-swell capacity of the clay [soils], they basically just sheer off the roots as it dries out and as the clays crack open."
She said for that reason more work could be done near run-on and riparian zones which held more moisture.
"The CEO of BioCarbon Engineering is ex-NASA," Dr Smith.
"So, he's basically had every technological and capability available to him that he has ever wanted.
"He basically said, 'If we're seriously going to combat bio-diversity and climate change, we need to planting half-a-trillion trees a year for the next 10 years. How are we going to do that?'.
"So, he designed an Australian fit for purpose [drone], about two metres by two metres, and by the end of the project we're hoping to have much larger drones than that, with much larger payloads."
Dr Smith said the project was also about carbon sequestration options for farmers with unproductive areas of property.
"I know a lot of landowners out around Nyngan, Cobar and Bourke have put large areas of land into carbon sequestration," she said.
"That's because it is pretty much unproductive in a bad year, so they take the stockoff it and call it their "carbon farm" and make income that way.
"In a lot of instances, particularly in a drought year, those guys are getting money that they wouldn't have got otherwise. Keeping them afloat really."
The research is part of the larger Cotton Landcare Tech-Innovation project, funded by the Cotton Research and Development Corporation and in partnership with the National Landcare Program Smart Farming Partnerships initiative.