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Flash Forest’s operators look on as army of drones take away to fire seeds. Photo: Flash Forest

Aerial seeding via drones promises faster reforestation but draws criticism over secrecy

Drone-led reforestation is slowly gaining traction here in B.C. But it’s not clear how effective such a tactic can be

By Shaurya Kshatri , in City , on February 15, 2022

A Toronto-based company has come up with a way of using drone technology to scatter seeds across swathes of deforested areas in British Columbia,and elsewhere in Canada.

Flash Forest’s approach in using automation and technology to an otherwise labour-intensive process of tree planting has been hailed by many technology investors and forestry experts for being more efficient and cheaper than manual planting. 

But silviculturists have raised concerns over lack of concrete evidence in support of using drones to regrow vast areas of forest land.

The debate over how to regenerate trees that are an integral part of B.C. comes in a crucial time when frequent wildfires continue destroying forests faster than they are replenished.

Established in 2019, Flash Forest has been currently focusing on using its technology to fire seeds via drones in areas scorched by the summer wildfires in B.C. Last year, Flash Forest completed the largest drone reforestation in Canadian history, planting over 300,000 seedpods across 13 different sites in Canada, including in Vancouver Island and northern B.C.

A Flash Forest drone flown during the 2020 spring pilot program in B.C. Photo: Flash Forest

“B.C. as a whole experienced record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought this summer, but we were thrilled to see many of our seedings withstand the elements and properly establish,” said Jones.

Jones claims that his company planted thousands of Sitka spruce, western red cedar, western hemlock, and Douglas fir in different regions across different biomes on Vancouver Island, including Nanaimo and Port Alberni, along with other species like western larch and lodgepole pine in parts of northern B.C.

However, there isn’t much data on how successful these pilot projects have been.

There is little evidence on how effective airborne seeding processes can be.

In a 2021 report titled UAV-Supported Forest Regeneration, researchers from more than a dozen government agencies, universities, analyzed 10 drone reforestation companies (including Flash Forest)  and concluded that fewer than 20 per cent of seeds dropped by drones take root and actually grow into trees.

“[Aerial seeding] companies place too much emphasis on the number of seeds dropped and not enough on how many of them sprout into trees,” said Midhun Mohan, the study’s lead author.

On the other hand, a 2021 sustainability analysis of drone reforestation done by University of B.C. faculty of forestry claims that there is a significant net positive benefit with respect to greenhouse emissions of using drone reforestation over conventional practises. The largest savings are found from not having to use nurseries to grow seedlings, as well as not transporting heavy pre-grown seedlings to potentially distant sites.

Flash Forest CEO Bryce Jones monitoring a drone’s flight path. Photo: Flash Forest

The sustainability analysis is born out of a partnership between Flash Forest and UBC. The university has granted access to the company to carry out their pilot projects at the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest in Maple Ridge and the Alex Fraser Research Forest in the Cariboo region of B.C.

John Innes, a forestry professor at UBC, also acts as an advisor for the company.

He is quite confident in the potential of automated drones:

“Flash Forest’s seedpods are matched to the environment and will help foster biodiversity.”

Financial backers appear to believe that is a winning proposition, and they have come onboard in supporting Flash Forest’s innovative venture.

In 2020, the company raised over $108,000 through its Kickstarter campaign. The following year, it received a seed investment of $1.4 million from technology growth equity investor Circular Investments, along with additional funds from MFS, Lemvi Strategies and The Good Fund, among others. Jones and his company have also been able to bag $1.8 million in grants from Emissions Reduction Alberta.

Given such encouraging responses, the team has now pledged to plant a billion trees by 2028.

But critics like Mohan want concrete evidence to support such bold claims.

“Most of it just seems like promotional tactics to gather funds,” he said.

Another ardent critic of drone reforestation is Jordan Tesluk, an auditor at the B.C. Forest Safety Council. Tesluk, a silviculturist, has used the more standardtools — shovels and spades — to plant trees all his life.

A silviculturist planting a tree. Photo: Sviatlana/ Adobe Stock

He argues that most planting sites require seedlings, not seeds.

“Planting seeds directly is riskier, since the seeds have to put up with hazards such as adverse weather patterns, high wind, pests and weeds,” said Tesluk.

In contrast, Tesluk suggests, nursery-grown seedlings have a shorter maturity rate and will grow much faster.

According to a 2000 study by B.C. Ministry of Forests, the average seedling survival two years after planting has been greater than 85 per cent since 1987. There is, however, no data on drone seed survival rate in B.C.

Addressing this issue of seed survival rate, Jones claims that his company pre-germinates the seeds inside the pod using a “secret sauce.” It’s unclear as to what the secret sauce entails or how it’s made.

Dave Kolotelo, a cone and seed improvement officer at the B.C. Tree Seed Centre, is a bit wary of such lack of information.

“It’s an interesting idea, especially when it comes to planting in dangerous fire-ravaged forests of B.C. But there seems to be a lot of secrecy around it,” he said.

Echoing Kolotelo, Mohan believes that it would be much easy to support companies like Flash Forest if the company become more transparent in its approach, so that more independent research can be done to ensure their feasibility.

Kolotelo also points out that growing a seed requires a lot of monitoring to ensure that the environment in which the seeds are growing is conducive. He is also concerned about whether drones are capable enough to continuously monitor growth.

Jones, on the other hand, says that the company constantly follows up on the plantation by sending spraying drones, which provide nitrogen and other nutrients for the best chance of survival.

“We are continuously investing in research and trying to improve seed survival and growth,” he said.

Jones is confident that the technology will keep getting better, and he is now eyeing further operations in Brazil, Borneo, New Zealand and Australia.