The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A few idealistic Canadians are trying to replant the world’s forests with flying machines

Climate change is a massive problem. Ontario’s Flash Forest has an unusual solution.

Bryce Jones, head of Flash Forest, says drones are “an incredibly practical tool to do things we could never do otherwise.” (Flash Forest)

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 young start-up with the unusual idea of deploying drones to bombard the landscape with tree seedpods.

A billion trees, to be exact.

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 company is using a fleet of unmanned vehicles to plant (more accurately, carpet-bomb) the landscape with tree seeds 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.

“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.

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

Deforestation is tricky, serving as both a result and cause of climate change. Heat caused by carbon in the atmosphere leads to more trees burning; more trees burning leads to more carbon in the atmosphere. Earth lost more than 500,000 square miles of forest between 1990 and 2016 as a result of logging, fires and the mounting threat of predatory beetles. The United States has lost 15 percent of its tree cover this century.

Still, with new regulations, heightened responsibility and reforestation, the numbers have turned. Last year, the United States was one of a handful of countries to show a net addition of forest cover — about 417 square miles, according to a U.N. report.

Flash Forest believes it can supercharge this effort. 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 tableaux, a green-age spin on a World War II movie. But, as Ahlström notes, loggers are using advanced artificial intelligence, so reforesters should do better than just shovels too. She says the company’s drones can plant trees up to 10 times as fast as humans can, especially in rugged, inaccessible areas, and often for less than $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.Foliage overload.

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.

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 just 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 vehicles from Chinese drone giant DJI but is moving to an unspecified new brand. The drones 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 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 aim 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 seedpods are matched to the environment and will foster biodiversity.)

The Flash Forest project is part of a broader drone-driven 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 ambitions similar to those of Flash Forest. Near a volcano in La Palma, in the Canary Islands, drones have just been dispatched to save stranded dogs.

Drone experts say Flash Forest fits that sort of 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?”