Bryce Jones has seen it all trying to fly his drones: equipment hiccups, execution snafus, the time he miscalculated the takeoff angle and flew a vehicle right into a tree.

Jones isn’t a hobbyist messing with backflips at the local park – he’s head of Flash Forest, a young start-up with the unusual idea of deploying drones to bombard the landscape with tree seed pods.

A billion trees, to be exact.

A five-year drought in California between 2011 and 2016, led to western pine beetle outbreaks, which contributed to the mortality of 129 million trees. Marc Meyer, U.S. Forest Service

While many think of drones as a toy or, worse, a lethally precise military tool, Flash Forest has gone the other way: it’s deploying drones to nourish life. The 20-person Toronto start-up is using a fleet of unmanned vehicles to plant (more accurately, carpet-bomb) the landscape with tree seed pods and replenish those majestic carbon-guzzlers. The battle against climate change can be waged with sober policymaking, an engaged citizenry and corporate responsibility. It also, it turns out, can be fought by a few hipster Millennials with flying machines.

“Drones have been featured in science fiction for so long I understand why people don’t always think of them in terms of solving our problems,” Jones said. “But they’re an incredibly practical tool to do things we could never do otherwise.”

Anyone following climate news this summer might have been seized by a sense of helpless horror: Trees were going down en masse. The Caldor and Dixie fires gobbled up more than a million acres of forest across California. A fire in British Columbia took out more than 237,000 acres.

Flash Forest principals were ready with their tree-planting first-responder service in Canada. They began making to plans to mobilize their drones, feed them a seedpod blend and dispatch them to start firing.

Deforestation is tricky, serving as both a result and cause of climate change. Hot conditions from carbon in the atmosphere lead to more trees burning; more trees burning leads to more carbon in the atmosphere. The earth lost more than 500,000 square miles of forest between 1990 and 2016 thanks to logging, fires and the mounting threat of predatory beetles. The U.S. has lost 15% of its tree cover this century.

Still, with new regulations, responsibility and reforestation, the numbers have slowed. Last year the U.S. was one of a handful of countries to show a net add in forest cover – about 417 square miles, according to a U.N. report.

Flash Forest believes it can supercharge this bid. Jones founded the company with brother Cameron and university pal Angelique Ahlstrom after he and Ahlstrom saw the effects of rampant deforestation near their school, the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

The idea of drones rapid-firing seeds into the ground might seem like an unusual tableaux, a WWII movie remade for the green age. But, as Ahlstrom notes, loggers use advanced AI, so re-foresters should do better than just shovels too. She says the company’s drones can plant trees about 10 times faster than humans, especially in inaccessible rugged areas, often at less than $1 per tree.

The goal for next year, Jones said, is 10,000 trees every week, ramping up to a total of one billion by 2028. Foliage overload.

Flash Forest has mainly been working in Canada but has pilot plans in the U.S. and the Netherlands. “We see a huge global future in drone reforestation,” Ahlstrom summed up the mission.

On a recent weekday, as the founders talked on Zoom from their warehouse in suburban Toronto, staffers made drone tweaks and discussed mission maps. Programming the drones’ flight path is where military precision comes in: Fire the seeds a few inches off and they won’t hit the right soil, or will grow too close together to survive.

Flash Forest had bought at least five drones from Chinese drone giant DJI but is moving to an unspecified new brand. They require extensive modification; your standard drones do not, as a rule, come with extensive seed-firing capabilities. The company will also soon begin a Series A financing round.

It will be some time before the success of the mission can be evaluated. Most saplings take at least five years to mature beyond the point of vulnerability to pests and predators.

There’s also some debate about the environmental benefit. Reforestation as a climate-change weapon relies on a simple premise: since trees hold so much of the carbon produced by fossil fuels, preserving them is a priority.

But a leading expert on deforestation, Bruno Locatelli, has been critical of planting trees for this reason without extreme care. “If you plan to reforest with the sole purpose of carbon storage for mitigation or timber production, you often end up having negative impacts on biodiversity, water sources and livelihoods,” he said after concluding a study on the issue.

Too many dead trees can also worsen the problem since they release all the carbon they’ve absorbed over their lifetimes back into the atmosphere.

And a lack of forest diversity can be bad for species that require interdependence. “Forests are complex machines with millions of meshing parts. You can’t plant a forest; you can only plant a plantation,” the wildlife journalist Ted Williams recently wrote.

But this doesn’t have to be the case, said John Innes, forestry professor at the University of British Columbia. “We can actually plant a more diverse forest than would occur naturally,” he said. Innes so liked Flash’s approach he joined as an adviser. (Jones says the company’s ten different seed pods are matched to the environment and foster biodiversity.)

The Flash Forest effort is part of a broader drone-altruism effort. A U.S. start-up, Zipline, has used the machines to deliver blood in Rwanda. Another U.S. firm, Seattle’s DroneSeed, has similar ambitions as Flash. At a volcano in La Palma, drones have just been dispatched to save stranded dogs.

Drone experts say Flash Forest fits that mission.

“People can be suspicious of drones as military or surveillance tools,” said Sally French, a leading expert in the online drone community known as The Drone Girl. “But who’ll complain about seeds?”

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.