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Cloudflare makes it harder for ISPs to track your web history

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If you're privacy-minded, you probably aren't thrilled that governments seem hell-bent on giving internet providers free rein over your browsing data. Cloudflare just gave you a tool to fight back, however. It launched, a free Domain Name S…

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Limit Bandwidth and set the Time when Windows Updates can download – Configure BITS Settings

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Windows Update

This post will show you how you can set the time window between which you can configure Windows 10 to download Windows Updates using Group Policy or Registry Editor to configure BITS Settings. Does your internet suddenly slow down, despite […]

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Now The Church of England takes Apple Pay and Google Pay

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What can a church do when its younger parishioners stop carrying coins they can toss into the donation box? In the Church of England's case, it's to offer high-tech collection plates that accept Apple Pay, Google Pay and SMS mobile payments. Accordin…

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Virtual Machine Serial Console access

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Ever since I started working on the Virtual Machine (VM) platform in Azure, there has been one feature request that I consistently hear customers asking for us to build. I don’t think words can describe how excited I am to announce that today we are launching the public preview of Serial Console access for both Linux and Windows VMs.

Managing and running virtual machines can be hard. We offer extensive tools to help you manage and secure your VMs, including patching management, configuration management, agent-based scripting, automation, SSH/RDP connectivity, and support for DevOps tooling like Ansible, Chef, and Puppet. However, we have learned from many of you that sometimes this isn’t enough to diagnose and fix issues. Maybe a change you made resulted in an fstab error on Linux and you cannot connect to fix it. Maybe a bcdedit change you made pushed Windows into a weird boot state. Now, you can debug both with direct serial-based access and fix these issues with the tiniest of effort. It’s like having a keyboard plugged into the server in our datacenter but in the comfort of your office or home.

Serial Console for Virtual Machines is available in all global regions starting today! You can access it by going to the Azure portal and visiting the Support + Troubleshooting section. See below for a quick video on how to access Serial Console.


Support for Serial Console comes naturally to Linux VMs. This capability requires no changes to existing images and will just start working. However, Windows VMs require a few additional steps to enable. For all platform images starting in March, we have already taken the required steps to enable the Special Administration Console (SAC) which is exposed via the Serial Console. You can also easily configure this on your own Windows VMs and images, outlined in our Serial Console documentation. From the SAC, you can easily get to a command shell and interact with the system via the serial console as shown here:


Serial Console access requires you to have VM Contributor or higher privileges to the virtual machine. This will ensure connection to the console is kept at the highest level of privileges to protect your system. Make sure you are using role-based access control to limit to only those administrators who should have access. All data sent back and forth is encrypted in transit.

I am thrilled to be offering this service on Azure VMs. Please try this out today and let us know what you think! You can learn more in this episode of Azure Friday’s, this Monday’s special episode of Tuesday’s with Corey on Serial Console, or in our Serial Console documentation.




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Europe dumps 300,000 UK-owned .EU domains into the Brexit bin

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Bureaucrats break internet norms by vowing to ban Blighty-based bods from Euro TLD

Brexit has hit the internet, and not in a good way.…

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The SMB’s Essential Disaster Recovery Checklist

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While almost every business would agree that it’s essential to have a disaster recovery (DR) plan, the sad fact is that not all businesses do. Most of those businesses that don’t have a DR plan tend to be the smaller and medium sized businesses (SMBs) that actually need a DR plan the most. Many of these SMBs could potentially go out of business if they were hit by a disaster and they were not able to effectively recover.

Today’s businesses need more availability and uptime than at any point in the past. Plus, they need to be able to deal with potential threats like ransomware as well as disasters and site outages. Creating an essential DR checklist is an important starting point for enacting your DR strategy. Let’s take a closer look at the main points that should be on your essential DR checklist.

An effective DR plan is essential and can be the difference for your business to either survive a disaster or to possibly be put out of business entirely. If you don’t have a DR plan in place following this DR checklist can be a good way to get started.

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connectwise (

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Connectwise installer for internal use

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Choosing the Best Mobile Office 365 Email Client

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Moving Mobile Email to Office 365

I am frequently asked to recommend the best mobile client to use with Office 365. Usually, the question is what email client to use because it is in the context of a company moving from on-premises Exchange to Exchange Online. Mail is often the first workload a company moves to the cloud, so it is unsurprising that this issue arises, especially as Exchange has included native support for mobile clients since the advent of the ActiveSync server in Exchange 2003 SP1 (the real action started with Exchange 2003 SP2).

Mobile Office 365 Clients

Of course, a wide range of other mobile clients are available for other Office 365 applications, as you can see from those installed on my iPhone (Figure 1).

iPhone Office 365 Apps

Figure 1: iPhone Pro for Office 365 (image credit: Tony Redmond)

The apps receive regular updates and are generally of a high quality. iOS tends to be a little ahead of Android when it comes to functionality, but that varies from app to app. My biggest complaint at present is that the Teams mobile app still does not support switching between tenants. That feature is “coming,” just like Christmas.

The Success of Exchange ActiveSync

Originally designed to evangelize connectivity between the nascent Windows smartphones and Exchange to compete with RIM BlackBerry, Microsoft’s focus soon shifted to licensing Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) to as many mobile device vendors as possible.

Since 2006, Microsoft has done a great job of licensing EAS to all and sundry. Today, EAS is the common connectivity protocol for mobile devices for both Exchange on-premises and Exchange Online. Even Microsoft’s most ardent competitors, Google and Apple, license EAS.

The Problem with Exchange ActiveSync

Good as EAS is at connecting to Exchange, it is now an old protocol. Although Microsoft refreshed EAS (to version 16.1) last year, the functionality available through EAS is much the same as it ever was – synchronizing folders, sending and receiving email, updating the calendar, and maintaining contacts. If this is what you need, then EAS is the right protocol. And because EAS works so well, mobile device vendors can easily integrate EAS into their email clients to make them with Exchange.

Except of course when new versions of an email app appear. Apple has a notable history of problems between the iOS mail app and Exchange, ranging from longstanding problems with calendar hijacking to issues with HTTP2 when IOS 11 appeared. To be fair to both Apple and Microsoft, the two companies work together to resolve problems more effectively now than they did in the past, but the problems illustrate some of the difficulties that can creep in when mobile device vendors implement EAS.

A New Mobile Strategy

Up to late 2014, Microsoft’s strategy for mobile devices centered around EAS. Recognizing the limitations of the protocol, they also had “OWA for Devices,” essentially putting a wrapper around a browser instance running OWA on mobile devices. OWA for Devices never went anywhere fast, even if it was the only way to get certain functions on mobile devices like support for encrypted email or access to shared mailboxes.

Then Microsoft bought Acompli for $200 million to transform their mobile strategy and get them out of the hole they were heading into with OWA for Devices. The Acompli apps for iOS and Android had built up a loyal fan base because the clients worked well with Exchange, Gmail, and other servers, and included some unique functionality like the Focused Inbox, which is now available throughout the Outlook family.

Microsoft rebranded the Acompli apps as Outlook for iOS and Android in January 2015. After weathering an initial storm caused by some misleading assertions by security experts, two problems remained. First, the Outlook apps used EAS, but only to retrieve information from Exchange mailboxes and store the data on Amazon Web Services (AWS). Second, the clients used their own protocol to interact with the AWS store.

In 2016, Microsoft began to move the Outlook data from AWS to a new architecture based on Office 365 and Azure. Soon, the clients will use the same architecture to deliver the same functionality for Exchange on-premises.

The Outlook mobile clients still use their own protocol to communicate with Exchange. Why? The EAS protocol does not support all the functionality that the Outlook clients deliver, including the Focused Inbox, full mailbox search, and (most recently) protected email.

The way that Outlook deals with protected email is important. If you chose to protect email with Azure Information Protection, messages accessed through Outlook mobile client are more secure. By comparison, “unenlightened” clients like the Apple iOS mail app must remove that protection to store and display email. Coupled with Office 365 Multi-Factor Authentication (and the Microsoft Authenticator app), Outlook is a good choice for those who need the highest level of mobile email security available in Office 365.

Although the Outlook clients sometimes work differently to the way I would like than I would like, they are the best mobile client for Exchange Online.

In summary, EAS is now the lowest common denominator for Exchange connectivity while all the new features and functionality appear in the Outlook clients.

Why Microsoft Will Not Upgrade EAS

Those who like using native email clients like the iOS mail app probably wonder why Microsoft doesn’t upgrade EAS to support the functionality needed by Outlook.

In a nutshell, Microsoft could upgrade EAS, but the engineering effort to do so cannot be justified. First, their own clients would then have to be retrofitted to use the “new EAS.” Second, no guarantee exists that mobile device vendors would upgrade their mail apps to exploit the features exposed by an upgraded API. Microsoft could ask the likes of Samsung, Apple, and Google to support new features, but it is likely that they would not.

The upshot is a lot of expense for Microsoft with no prospect of any positive outcome.


Into the Future

My answer to people who ask about mobile apps for Office 365 is that if users are happy with the native mail apps, then continue with that course. The users don’t realize what they are missing. On the other hand, if you want users to have the best functionality, you need to use the Outlook clients. That is where Microsoft’s focus is today, and it is where new features will appear in the future. Hopefully, Microsoft will deliver some long-awaiting functionality, like support for shared mailboxes, soon.

And don’t forget the other mobile apps for Office 365. With such a selection available today, I don’t know how we ever managed to do any work on the road in the past…

Follow Tony on Twitter @12Knocksinna.

Want to know more about how to manage Office 365? Find what you need to know in “Office 365 for IT Pros”, the most comprehensive eBook covering all aspects of Office 365. Available in PDF and EPUB formats (suitable for iBooks) or for Amazon Kindle.

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How to TAG files in Windows 10 & use it to make File Search efficient

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While Windows 10 has a powerful search inbuilt into the system, especially with Cortana which allows you to search smartly using filters like music, images, PDF and so on. One of the most underrated, but efficient way to search files […]

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Boring Company to start selling LEGO-like interlocking bricks made from tunneling rock

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Elon Musk announced that the Boring Company will sell LEGO-like interlocking bricks made from rock that his tunneling machines excavate from the earth. Musk stated these bricks will be sold in “kits” and will be rated to withstand California’s earthquakes. 

The date of availability or cost of this latest product is unknown. While his company has only started digging shorter tunnels there is not enough upturned rock to begin making these bricks yet. 

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Celebrate World Backup Day on March 31, 2018 – Are You Ready?

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There’s a “DAY” for almost anything these days, but here’s one that should be on your calendar – World Backup day , March 31, 2018. Whether its… Read more at

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Why PowerShell is a Core Skill for Office 365 Administrators

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PowerShell Office 365

PowerShell Office 365

Office 365 Pros Know PowerShell

Because I come from the Exchange side of the Office 365 house, PowerShell is a natural tool for me to turn to whenever I need to do something with Office 365 that Microsoft hasn’t included in the admin tools. The PowerShell coverage for Exchange is deep and extensive, even in the cloud. By comparison, PowerShell is not well covered in other Office 365 applications. Skype for Business Online has some administration functions while SharePoint Online offers mediocre support. Planner has no support, and the first version of the Teams PowerShell module could be so much better.

Given the spotty coverage in other parts of the service, I guess it should come as no surprise that Office 365 administrators who do not have a background in Exchange might consider PowerShell to be an odd but sometimes useful command-line interface. But that’s not the case. Simply put, PowerShell is a core skill for Office 365 administrators.

PowerShell Quirks

It’s true that PowerShell has its quirks. Like any scripting language, PowerShell syntax can be baffling and obscure, so using an IDE is the best approach for someone starting out. Writing raw PowerShell in the console is for masochists.

PowerShell has significant scalability limitations too, especially inside Office 365 where throttling controls clamp down on anyone who tries to consume resources with abandon. PowerShell will not process tens of thousands of objects rapidly, but that’s not its purpose.

If you think you need to process large numbers of Office 365 objects, listen to the recording of the seminar by MVPs Alan Byrne and Vasil Michev. The techniques they explain will help you get the job done, but it won’t be quick.

Why Admins Need PowerShell

The reasons why Office 365 administrators need to achieve a basic level of competency with PowerShell are varied. Here’s my top pick.

The Office 365 Admin Tools are Not Perfect

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and Microsoft probably thinks that its admin tools are just fine, but some of the more interesting jobs you might want to do need you to plunge into PowerShell. A recent example is the provision of cmdlets to recover deleted items for users without the need to log into their accounts.

Another is the support article cited in my article on GDPR data spillage. The list of steps needed to discover and report all the holds in place for a mailbox that must be temporarily lifted to remove items is long and prone to error. Scripting the retrieval and release of holds for a mailbox would automate the process and make it easier to stand over in court, should the need arise to justify the removal of held information. Finally, I point to the need to enable mailbox auditing for new mailboxes to ensure audit data flows into the Office 365 Audit Log. This problem has been around for years and it’s surprising that Exchange Online does not enable auditing by default. But you can, with PowerShell.

Microsoft Cannot Anticipate Every Possible Admin Task

Try to write down all the tasks that you think an Office 365 Admin will perform in a year. Once you get past the easy stuff like creating accounts, monitoring usage reports, and so on, it becomes increasingly difficult to anticipate just what admins will be called upon to do. The Office 365 Admin Center and the other associates consoles represent a lot of functionality, but there’s always the possibility that you might have to do something that isn’t available as a menu choice in a GUI.

Two recent examples are how to archive inactive Office 365 Groups (and Teams) and how to identify when Groups and Teams are not being used. Microsoft offers the Azure Active Directory expiration policy for Groups, but this is based on time (that is, a group expires after a set period) instead of activity, which creates the possibility that Office 365 could expire and remove your most important teams or groups even though they are in active use daily. You can easily recover the expired groups (within 30 days), but that’s not the point. It’s better to understand what groups and teams are active and act on that basis.

Some Office 365 Features need PowerShell

The group expiration policy has a GUI (in the Azure portal) to work with its settings, but many Office 365 features need admins to run some PowerShell commands to set things up. The Office 365 Groups policy is a good example. If you want to set up a naming policy or restrict group creation to a defined set of users, you need PowerShell.

PowerShell Helps You Understand Office 365 Better

Understanding how a technology works is a great way to master it. For instance, running the Get-MailboxStatistics cmdlet against a group mailbox reveals its contents. You might or might not be interested in this information, but it is surprising how often detail like this has proven invaluable.

PowerShell Is Not Hard

I am not a programmer now. I used to be, with VAX COBOL and VAX BASIC, in the last millennium, but I can cheerfully hack away with PowerShell and get stuff done. Anyone can too. It’s not hard and a ton of useful examples and advice exists on the web (here’s a good start). Of course, you should never download and run a script in your production environment without carefully examining (and understanding) the code first, but that does not take away from the point that you are not alone.


PowerShell is Fun

Perhaps oddly, PowerShell can be fun too. A sense of achievement comes when a recalcitrant script finally works to make Office 365 give up some secrets or some piece of data becomes more understandable. Although Microsoft might create a perfect nirvana of administration within Office 365, tenant admins need some competence with PowerShell for the foreseeable future. The sooner you start, the better you’ll be.

Follow Tony on Twitter @12Knocksinna.

Want to know more about how to manage Office 365? Find what you need to know in “Office 365 for IT Pros”, the most comprehensive eBook covering all aspects of Office 365. Available in PDF and EPUB formats (suitable for iBooks) or for Amazon Kindle.

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Polish bank begins using a blockchain-based document management system

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A blockchain company called Coinfirm has announced a partnership with PKO BP, a major Polish bank, to provide blockchain-based document verification using a tool called Trudatum. The project is a an actual implementation of one of the primary benefits of blockchain-based tools, namely its ability to permanently and immutably store data. This announcement brings blockchain implementations out of the realm of proof-of-concept and into the real world.

“Every document recorded in the blockchain (e.g. proof of a transaction, or bank’s terms and conditions for a given product) will be issued in the form of irreversible abbreviation or hash signed with the bank’s private key. This will allow a client to verify remotely if the files he received from a business partner or from the bank are true, or if a modification of the document was attempted,” wrote the Coinfirm team.

Coinfirm founders Paweł Kuskowski, Pawel Aleksander, and Maciej Ziółkowski have experience in cryptocurrency and banking and they bootstrapped the company over the past two years. They also run a blockchain-based AMC/KYC platform for investments that is reaching the break-even point. They entered the world of blockchain after becoming frustrated with banking but the industry sucked them back in.

“Together with Pawel Aleksander we decided to leave the banking world as we saw that the AML process in the financial industry is broken – it’s very arbitrary, takes thousands of people, and has a very low efficiency,” said Kuskowski. “Our early observation of the digital currency space and it’s challenges showed a huge need for AML solutions. Also because of the nature of the ledgers we could create a data driven machine-learning based software as opposed to the people-based process prone to human error and subjectivity that is the standard for the banking industry. Once we understood the blockchain technology better we continued to launch new products that are using it to solve compliance challenges – starting with the Coinfirm AML/KYC Platform, and then Trudatum.”

The Trudatum tool essentially allows PKO BP to create “durable media” – “a digital solution for storing all agreements with clients that is now required by the law.”

“Every document recorded in the blockchain (e.g. proof of a transaction or bank’s terms and conditions for a given product) will be issued in the form of irreversible abbreviation („hash”) signed with the bank’s private key. This will allow a client to verify remotely if the files he received from a business partner or from the bank are true or if a modification of the document was attempted,” said Kuskowski.

For their part, PKO BP is pleased with the pilot project, making it one of the first European banks to publicly admit that they’re using a blockchain tool for document management.

“Coinfirm is one of the startups that we discovered thanks to the ‘Let’s Fintech with PKO Bank Polski’ acceleration process,” said Adam Marciniak, a Vice President at PKO BP. “It already has considerable experience in blockchain technology acquired in several countries. Last year we started tests of the Trudatum platform developed by Coinfirm. As tests in the banking environment were highly satisfying, we decided to cooperate more closely. We believe that together we will be able to carry out a pioneering operation of implementing blockchain technology into the Polish banking sector.”

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Brad Dickinson | That night, a forest flew: DroneSeed is planting trees from the air

That night, a forest flew: DroneSeed is planting trees from the air

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Wildfires are consuming our forests and grasslands faster than we can replace them. It’s a vicious cycle of destruction and inadequate restoration rooted, so to speak, in decades of neglect of the institutions and technologies needed to keep these environments healthy.

DroneSeed is a Seattle-based startup that aims to combat this growing problem with a modern toolkit that scales: drones, artificial intelligence intelligence, and biological engineering. And it’s even more complicated than it sounds.

Trees in decline

A bit of background first. The problem of disappearing forests is a complex one, but it boils down to a few major factors: climate change, outdated methods methods, and shrinking budgets (and as you can imagine, all three are related).

Forest fires are a natural occurrence, of course. And they’re necessary, as you’ve likely read, to sort of clear the deck for new growth to take hold. But climate change, monoculture growth, population increases, lack of control burns burns, and other factors have led to these events taking place not just more often, but more extensively and to more permanent effect.

On average, the U.S. is losing 7 million acres a year. That’s not easy to replace to begin with — and as budgets for the likes of national and state forest upkeep have shrunk continually over the last half century, there have been fewer and fewer resources with which to combat this trend.

The most effective and common reforestation technique for a recently burned woodland is human planters carrying sacks of seedlings and manually selecting and placing them across miles of landscapes. This back-breaking work is rarely done by anyone for more than a year or two, so labor is scarce and turnover is intense.

Even if the labor was available on tap, the trees might not be. Seedlings take time to grow in nurseries and a major wildfire might necessitate the purchase and planting of millions of new trees. It’s impossible for nurseries to anticipate this demand, and the risk associated with growing such numbers on speculation is more than many can afford. One missed guess could put the whole operation underwater.

Meanwhile, Meanwhile if nothing gets planted, invasive weeds move in with a vengeance, claiming huge areas that were once old growth forests. Lacking the labor and tree inventory to stem this possibility, forest keepers resort to a stopgap measure: use helicopters to drench the area in herbicides to kill weeds, then saturate it with fast-growing cheatgrass or the like. (The alternative to spraying is, again, the manual approach: machetes.)

At least then, in a year, instead of a weedy wasteland, you have a grassy monoculture — not a forest, but it’ll do until the forest gets here.

One final complication: helicopter spraying is a horrendously dangerous profession. These pilots are flying at sub-100-foot elevations, performing high-speed maneuvers so that their sprays reach the very edge of burn zones but they don’t crash head-on into the trees. This is an extremely dangerous occupation: 80 to 100 crashes occur every year in the U.S. alone.

In short, there are more and worse fires and we have fewer resources — and dated ones at that — with which to restore forests after them.

These are facts anyone in forest ecology and logging are familiar with, but perhaps not as well known among technologists. We do tend to stay in areas with cell coverage. But it turns out that a boost from the cloistered knowledge workers of the tech world — specifically those in the Emerald City — may be exactly what the industry and ecosystem require.

Simple idea, complex solution

So what’s the solution to all this? Automation, right?

Automation, especially via robotics, is proverbially suited for jobs that are “dull, dirty, and dangerous.” Restoring a forest is dirty and dangerous to be sure. But dull isn’t quite right. It turns out that the process requires far more intelligence than anyone was willing, it seems, to apply to the problem — with the exception of those planters. That’s changing.

Earlier this year, DroneSeed was awarded the first multi-craft, over-55-pounds unmanned aerial vehicle license ever issued by the FAA. Its custom UAV platforms, equipped with multispectral camera arrays, high-end lidar, six-gallon tanks of herbicide 6-gallon tanks of herbicide, and proprietary seed dispersal mechanisms have been hired by several major forest management companies, with government entities eyeing the service as well.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

These drones scout a burned area, mapping it down to as high as centimeter accuracy, including objects and plant species, fumigate it efficiently and autonomously, identify where trees would grow best, then deploy painstakingly designed seed-nutrient packages to those locations. It’s cheaper than people, less wasteful and dangerous than helicopters helicopters, and smart enough to scale to national forests currently at risk of permanent damage.

I met with the company’s team at their headquarters near Ballard, where complete and half-finished drones sat on top of their cases and the air was thick with capsaicin (we’ll get to that).

The idea for the company began when founder and CEO Grant Canary burned through a few sustainable startup ideas after his last company was acquired, and was told, in his despondency, that he might have to just go plant trees. Canary took his friend’s suggestion literally.

“I started looking into how it’s done today,” he told me. “It’s incredibly outdated. Even at the most sophisticated companies in the world, planters are superheroes that use bags and a shovel to plant trees. They’re being paid to move material over mountainous terrain and be a simple AI and determine where to plant trees where they will grow — microsites. We are now able to do both these functions with drones. This allows those same workers to address much larger areas faster without the caloric wear and tear.”

(Video: Ryan Warner/DroneSeed)

It may not surprise you to hear that investors are not especially hot on forest restoration (I joked that it was a “growth industry” but really because of the reasons above it’s in dire straits).

But investors are interested in automation, machine learning, drones drones, and especially government contracts. So the pitch took that form. With the money DroneSeed Droneseed secured, it has built its modestly sized but highly accomplished team and produced the prototype drones with which is has captured several significant contracts before even announcing that it exists.

“We definitely don’t fit the mold or metrics most startups are judged on. The nice thing about not fitting the mold is people double take and then get curious,” Canary said. “Once they see we can actually execute and have been with 3 of the 5 largest timber companies in the U.S. US for years, they get excited and really start advocating hard for us.”

The company went through Techstars, and Social Capital helped them get on their feet, with Spero Ventures joining up after the company got some groundwork done.

If things go as DroneSeed Droneseed hopes, these drones could be deployed all over the world by trained teams, allowing spraying and planting efforts in nurseries and natural forests to take place exponentially faster and more efficiently than they are today. It’s genuine change-the-world-from-your-garage stuff, which is why this article is so long.

Hunter (weed) killers

The job at hand isn’t simple or even straightforward. Every landscape differs from every other, not just in the shape and size of the area to be treated but the ecology, native species, soil type and acidity, type of fire or logging that cleared it it, and so on. So the first and most important task is to gather information.

For this, DroneSeed this Droneseed has a special craft equipped with a sophisticated imaging stack. This first pass is done using waypoints set on satellite imagery.

The information collected at this point is really far more detailed than what’s actually needed. The lidar, for instance, collects spatial information at a resolution much beyond what’s needed to understand the shape of the terrain and major obstacles. It produces a 3D map of the vegetation as well as the terrain, allowing the system to identify stumps, roots, bushes, new trees, erosion erosion, and other important features.

This works hand in hand with the multispectral camera, which collects imagery not just in the visible bands — useful for identifying things — but also in those outside the human range, which allows for in-depth analysis of the soil and plant life.

The resulting map of the area is not just useful for drone navigation, but for the surgical strikes that are necessary to make this kind of drone-based operation worth doing in the first place. No doubt there are researchers who would love to have this data as well.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

Now, spraying and planting are very different tasks. The first tends to be done indiscriminately using helicopters, and the second by laborers who burn out after a couple of years — as mentioned above, it’s incredibly difficult work. The challenge in the first case is to improve efficiency and efficacy, while in the second case is to automate something that requires considerable intelligence.

Spraying is in many ways simpler. Identifying invasive plants isn’t easy, exactly, but it can be done with imagery like that the drones are collecting. Having identified patches of a plant to be eliminated, the drones can calculate a path and expend only as much herbicide is necessary to kill them, instead of dumping hundreds of gallons indiscriminately on the entire area. It’s cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Naturally, the opposite approach could be used for distributing fertilizer or some other agent.

I’m making it sound easy again. This isn’t a plug and play situation — you can’t buy a DJI drone and hit the “weedkiller” option in its control software. A big part of this operation was the creation not only of the drones themselves, but the infrastructure with which to deploy them.

Conservation convoy

The drones themselves are unique, but not alarmingly so. They’re heavy-duty craft, capable of lifting well over the 57 pounds of payload they carry (the FAA limits them to 115 pounds).

“We buy and gut aircraft, then retrofit them,” Canary explained simply. Their head of hardware, would probably like to think there’s a bit more to it than that, but really the problem they’re solving isn’t “make a drone” but “make drones plant trees.” To that end, Canary explained, “the most unique engineering challenge was building a planting module for the drone that functions with the software.” We’ll get to that later.

DroneSeed deploys drones in swarms, which means as many as five drones in the air at once — which in turn means they need two trucks and trailers with their boxes, power supplies, ground stations stations, and so on. The company’s VP of operations comes from a military background where managing multiple aircraft onsite was part of the job, and she’s brought her rigorous command of multi-aircraft environments to the company.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

The drones take off and fly autonomously, but always under direct observation by the crew. If anything goes wrong, they’re there to take over, though of course there are plenty of autonomous behaviors for what to do in case of, say, a lost positioning signal or bird strike.

They fly in patterns calculated ahead of time to be the most efficient, spraying at problem areas when they’re over them, and returning to the ground stations to have power supplies swapped out before returning to the pattern. It’s key to get this process down pat, since efficiency is a major selling point. If a helicopter does it in a day, why shouldn’t a drone swarm? It would be sad if they had to truck the craft back to a hangar and recharge them every hour or two. It also increases logistics costs like gas and lodging if it takes more time and driving.

This means the team involves several people, people as well as several drones. Qualified pilots and observers are needed, as well as people familiar with the hardware and software that can maintain and troubleshoot on site — usually with no cell signal or other support. Like many other forms of automation, this one brings its own new job opportunities to the table.

AI plays Mother Nature

The actual planting process is deceptively complex.

The idea of loading up a drone with seeds and setting it free on a blasted landscape is easy enough to picture. Hell, it’s been done. There are efforts going back decades to essentially load seeds or seedlings into guns and fire them out into the landscape at speeds high enough to bury them in the dirt: in theory this combines the benefits of manual planting with the scale of carpeting the place with seeds.

But whether it was slapdash placement or the shock of being fired out of a seed gun, this approach never seemed to work.

Forestry researchers have shown the effectiveness of finding the right “microsite” for a seed or seedling; in fact, it’s why manual planting works as well as it does. Trained humans find perfect spots to put seedlings: in the lee of a log; near but not too near the edge of a stream; on the flattest part of a slope, and so on. If you really want a forest to grow, you need optimal placement, perfect conditions conditions, and preventative surgical strikes with pesticides.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

Although it’s difficult,

Although it’s difficult it’s also the kind of thing that a machine learning model can become good at. Sorting through messy, complex imagery and finding local minima and maxima is a specialty of today’s ML systems, and the aerial imagery from the drones is rich in relevant data.

The company’s CTO led the creation of an ML model that determines the best locations to put trees at a site — though this task can be highly variable depending on the needs of the forest. A logging company might want a tree every couple of feet, feet even if that means putting them in sub-optimal conditions — but a few inches to the left or right may make all the difference. On the other hand, national forests may want more sparse deployments or specific species in certain locations to curb erosion or establish sustainable firebreaks.

Once the data has been crunched, the map is loaded into the drones’ hive mind and the convoy goes to the location, where the craft are loaded up with seeds instead of herbicides.

But not just any old seeds! You see, that’s one more wrinkle. If you just throw a sagebrush seed on the ground, even if it’s in the best spot in the world, it could easily be snatched up by an animal, roll or wash down to a nearby crevasse, or simply fail to find the right nutrients in time despite the planter’s best efforts.

That’s why DroneSeed’s head Head of Planting and his team have been working on a proprietary seed packet that they were unbelievably reticent to detail.

From what I could gather, they’ve put a ton of work into packaging the seeds into nutrient-packed little pucks held together with a biodegradable fiber. The outside is dusted with capsaicin, the chemical that makes spicy food spicy (and also what makes bear spray do what it does). If they hadn’t told me, I might have guessed, since the workshop area was hazy with it, leading us all to cough and tear up a little. If I were a marmot, I’d learn to avoid these things real fast.

The pucks, or “seed vessels,” can and must be customized for the location and purpose — you have to match the content and acidity of the soil, things like that. DroneSeed will have to make millions of these things, but it doesn’t plan to be the manufacturer.

Finally these pucks are loaded in a special puck-dispenser which, closely coordinating with the drone, spits one out at the exact moment and speed needed to put it within a few centimeters of the microsite.

All these factors should improve the survival rate of seedlings substantially. That means that the company’s methods will not only be more efficient, but more effective. Reforestation is a numbers game played at scale, and even slight improvements — and DroneSeed is promising more than that — are measured in square miles and millions of tons of biomass.

Proof of life

DroneSeed has already signed several big contracts for spraying, and planting is next. Unfortunately, Unfortunately the timing on their side meant they missed this year’s planting season, though by doing a few small sites and showing off the results, they’ll be in pole position for next year.

After demonstrating the effectiveness of the planting technique, the company expects to expand its business substantially. That’s the scaling part — again, not easy, but easier than hiring another couple thousand planters every year.

Ryan Warner/DroneSeed

Ideally the hardware can be assigned to local teams that do the on-site work, producing loci of activity around major forests from which jobs can be deployed at large or small scales. A set of five or six 5 or 6 drones does the work of one a helicopter, roughly speaking, so depending on the volume requested by a company or forestry organization, organization you may need dozens on demand.

That’s all yet to be explored, but DroneSeed is confident that the industry will see the writing on the wall when it comes to the old methods, and identify them as a solution that fits the future.

If it sounds like I’m cheerleading for this company, that’s because I am. It’s not often in the world of tech startups that you find a group of people not just attempting to solve a serious problem — it’s common enough to find companies hitting this or that issue — but who have spent the time, gathered the expertise expertise, and really done the dirty, boots-on-the-ground work that needs to happen so it goes from great idea to real company.

That’s what I felt was the case with DroneSeed, and here’s hoping their work pays off — for their sake, sure, but mainly for ours.