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Forests in a flash with drone planting

Bryce Jones has seen it all trying to fly his drones: equipment hiccups, execution mishaps, 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 start-up with the unusual idea of deploying drones to bombard the landscape with seedpods for trees. A billion trees, to be exact. Source: The Washington Post, edited by Timberbiz

While many think of drones as a toy or, in battle, a lethally precise military tool, Flash Forest has gone a new route: It’s deploying drones to nourish life. The 20-person Toronto company is using a fleet of unmanned vehicles to seed the ground with trees and replenish those majestic carbon guzzlers. The battle against climate change can be waged with sober policymaking, an engaged citizenry and corporate responsibility. It can also be fought, it turns out, by a few hipster millennials with flying machines.

Jones founded the company with brother Cameron and university pal Angelique Ahlström after he and Ahlström saw the effects of rampant deforestation near their school, the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

Drones rapid-firing seeds into the ground might seem like an unusual concept, a green-age version of a World War II movie scene. But, as Ahlström notes, loggers are using artificial intelligence, so those reforesting should do better than just shovels, too. She says the company’s drones can plant trees about 10 times as fast as humans can, especially in rugged, inaccessible areas, and often for less than US$1 per tree.

The goal for next year, Jones said, is 10,000 trees every week, ramping up to a total of 1 billion by 2028.

Flash Forest has mainly been working in Canada but has pilot plans underway in the United States and the Netherlands.

“We see a huge global future in drone reforestation,” Ahlström said.

Flash Forest had bought at least five vehicles from Chinese drone giant DJI but is moving to an unspecified new brand. The drones require extensive modification; your standard models 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 weapon against climate change relies on a simple premise: Because 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 purpose 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 conducting a study on the issue.

Too many dead trees can also worsen the problem, because 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, a 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 that he joined on as an adviser. (Jones says the company’s 10 different seedpods are matched to the environment and foster biodiversity.)