This Ontario startup is testing drones to plant trees in Alberta


Over the past two years, a number of burned forest sites in northern Alberta – including Horse River, Fort McMurray and Wandering River – have been visited by a swarm of drones that have bombarded the ground with pods of approximately the size of a penny.

Carrying approximately 1,600 tree pods each, the drones fire five pods per second, covering the designated area in minutes. The location where the pods are targeted is not random but rather mapped by the drones using surveying software to detect areas to avoid, such as rivers, rocks, logs and piles remnants.

The drones belong to Flash Forest, an Ontario-based automated reforestation startup, which uses its technology to replant forests destroyed by wildfires in Alberta.

The company, launched in 2019, is working on its drone and seed pod technology after receiving $1.8 million in funding from Emissions Reduction Alberta (ERA) in 2021.

Cameron Jones, the company’s co-founder and chief operating officer, said the biggest challenge it faced was developing pods that were durable enough to sprout.

6:26Planting trees from above

An Ontario company is testing a concept it believes could take hold in the tree-planting industry. Flash Forest uses drones to plant trees in a patch of forest in northern Alberta burned by a wildfire. Cameron Jones is the co-founder and CEO of Flash Forest.

The company has set an ambitious goal of planting four million trees for ERA by 2023.

« As soon as it rains on them, they actually swell up to about four times their size…and then it absorbs that seed and gives it moisture, so it’s got a bit more head start, » Jones said. Radio Canada Edmonton AM.

The company’s researchers are developing different seed varieties to see which pod recipe would work best. Jones said they have planted jack pine, white spruce, and black spruce in Alberta, though they have a strong focus on creating recipes for white spruce pods.

He said he couldn’t share photos of their pods because the company currently has two patents pending on the design.

Drones are being used to plant trees in formerly burned areas in Alberta in 2021. Flash Forest is testing tree planting using drones after receiving funding from the province. (Sent by Flash Forest)

The special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in October 2018, suggested that an expansion of one billion hectares of forests worldwide would be vital to combat climate change .

The Canadian government has pledged to plant two billion trees by 2030. In October, Natural Resources Canada awarded Flash Forest $1.33 million to continue its replanting efforts.

« Investing in this project allows Alberta to be the first to adopt this made-in-Canada solution to enable greater reforestation and rehabilitation, » ERA CEO Justin Riemer wrote in an email.

Planting trees in Alberta

Alberta has an established tree-planting industry that planted more than 100 million trees during this year’s planting season and the same amount last year, according to Aspen Dudzic, director of communications for the Alberta Forest Products Association.

But, notes Dudzic, the majority of tree planting is done in logging areas.

She said wildfire areas are often dangerous for tree planters because of the risk of trees breaking and falling.

« From a safety standpoint, we don’t really have tree planters in these areas unless someone has come through and kind of cleaned up all the burnt material, » she said. .

Dudzic pointed out that in general, trees in Alberta are well adapted to wildfires and regenerate quite well, but some species like white spruce can have difficulty regenerating.

Planting the seeds of automation

Jones and his brother Bryce, co-founder and CEO of Flash Forest, witnessed a wildfire in their hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia, in 2004.

The area was never replanted and brush replaced trees, Jones said.

After seeing the loss of what was once a vast forest, Bryce Jones set about automated reforestation.

« He was a tree planter and was always looking for ways…we can kind of leverage the tools for the environment, » Cameron Jones said.

He said Flash Forest focuses on areas of « high-severity burns » because he believes that’s where it can make a big difference to climate change.

To help the company grow, Jones said it is focused on ramping up its pod production business.

“In the spring of 2023 we will produce 210,000 pods per day and in about two to three years we want to produce around 1.5 million per day,” he said.



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