Forests play a critical role in protecting against climate change, but we are rapidly losing trees to logging, agriculture, urban sprawl, wildfires, and more. Unfortunately, manual tree planting involves hard labour and potentially dangerous terrain.
Canadian reforestation company Flash Forest aims to tackle that limitation by using specialized drones to plant a billion trees around the world by 2028.
By taking to the skies, they are making the tree planting process faster, more efficient, and scaleable to huge numbers of trees. It’s a project that combines technology, software, ecological science, and remote human operation to access difficult locations.
The team has designed several seed pods, making a library of local tree species for each location where they plant. The key to a thriving forest is diversity, and at any given site around eight species are selected for planting.
Each pod looks like an earthy marble: a compact sphere packed with at least three pre-germinated seeds. To make sure the seeds have the best chance to grow into trees, the pods also contain fertilizers and mycorrhizae — fungi that help support roots.
Around 500 pods can be loaded onto the tree planting drone. A pneumatic firing device can be triggered remotely, launching one pod every second.
Fired near the forest floor at a speed of 55 metres per second, the pods can lodge a quarter to half an inch into the soil, which is the ideal depth for the seeds to grow. When exposed to moisture, the pods rapidly expand to create a cavity for the roots to take hold. The pods are also designed to hold water, helping the seeds survive drought conditions.
Flash Forest’s fleet of drones also includes spray drones to cover the planted areas with nutrients, and mapping drones that can scout for planting locations and monitor the growing seedlings.
Pods are more portable than seedlings, and take less water, energy, and time to produce. In particular, this technology can be deployed quickly after a wildfire, replanting before undergrowth can grow in to accelerate forest restoration.
Through a major grant from Emissions Reduction Alberta, the team is testing their technology in northern Alberta in the boreal forest. These are some of the toughest areas for young trees to thrive, with cold winters and short growing seasons. They expect that what works in these challenging conditions should work anywhere in Canada.
The company planted over 300,000 trees across Canada this year, including sites impacted by the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. The effort planted 19 different species across 13 sites nationwide. Next year, they plan to expand into Europe, Hawaii, and Brazil.
Accelerating tree planting is important to meeting global goals for carbon reduction. Newly planted seeds need time to grow before they can participate fully in removing CO2 from the air, making it critical to start planting sooner and faster. The efficiency offered by Flash Forest makes it an important innovation for meeting our climate goals.