This week, on land north of Toronto that previously burned in a wildfire, drones are hovering over fields and firing seedpods into the ground, planting native pine and spruce trees to help restore habitat for birds. Flash Forest, the Canadian startup behind the project, plans to use its technology to plant 40,000 trees in the area this month. By the end of the year, as it expands to other regions, it will plant hundreds of thousands of trees. By 2028, the startup aims to have planted a full 1 billion trees.
The company, like a handful of other startups that are also using tree-planting drones, believes that technology can help the world reach ambitious goals to restore forests to stem biodiversity loss and fight climate change. Drones don’t address deforestation, which is arguably an even more critical issue than planting trees since older trees can store much more carbon. But to restore forests that have already been lost, the drones can work more quickly and cheaply than humans planting with shovels.
Flash Forest’s tech can currently plant 10,000 to 20,000 seedpods a day; as the technology advances, a pair of pilots will be able to plant 100,000 trees in a day (by hand, someone might typically be able to plant around 1,500 trees in a day.) The company aims to bring the cost down to 50 cents per tree, or around a fourth of the cost of some other tree restoration efforts. After launching the company in early 2019, the small team had a working prototype by the middle of the year and ran a pilot test in August, followed by larger tests in September and October.
So far, they’ve seen high rates of survival in controlled studies, and are hoping to replicate those in real-world settings. After the current planting near Toronto and another in British Columbia, the company will begin a restoration project in Hawaii later in the year, with plans to plant 300,000 trees there. It’s also planning tree-planting pilots in Australia, Colombia, and Malaysia. In some cases, funding comes from forestry companies, government contracts, or mining companies that are required to replant trees; in other cases, the startup plants trees for companies that offer tree-planting as a donation with the sale of products, or for landowners who can get a tax break, in some areas, for planting trees.
“There’s a lot of philanthropy around it, and then also just a solid business model with a desperate need and demand to plant trees,” says Flash Forest cofound Angelique Ahlstrom.
The Optimist Daily has been giving quite a bit of the spotlight to drones in recent times. In April, we shared a story about US-based startup Zipline, which is using drones to accelerate the speed of coronavirus testing in Ghana. Just last week, we brought you a story from Rotterdam, The Netherlands, where 300 illuminated drones were programmed to come together to form a three-dimensional heart shape to show gratitude and support to health care workers and those struck by the virus.