Getting to Net Zero: To replant the millions of acres decimated by forest fires, Toronto company Flash Forest sends in drones

This is part of a series highlighting Canadian companies working to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

By the end of this summer, 44,647 forest fires had burned 5.6 million acres of land in the United States. In Canada, 6,317 fires destroyed 10.34 million acres – a total of the whole of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island were burned to the ground. In British Columbia, where more than 40 fires raged, the small town of Lytton was almost wiped out.

There, after record heat – as high as 49.6 C – flames destroyed 90 percent of the city, killing two and injuring several others. Property, crops, resources were wiped out in about 15 minutes.

Deforestation – through deforestation or forest fires – has massive consequences for both climate and health. However, leaving replanting to Mother Nature can take decades, especially as catastrophic wildfires are increasing in frequency and intensity. And the time, cost, and manual labor involved — not to mention the lack of people signing up to do that work — make traditional methods of tree planting not as viable an option as they once were.

Bryce Jones knows how difficult it is to replant forests. For four months in 2013, he worked as a tree planter throughout British Columbia and northern Alberta, planting 76,000 pine, spruce and fir trees. “There’s no technology there – it’s just bags and shovels,” he says. “The only way you can automate replanting is through the air.”

Jones had been an entrepreneur since he was 18 and knew he wanted to do something related to the environment. He had a biology degree from the University of Victoria and lots of ideas, but it was not until 2019, when he was working on a diploma in electromechanical engineering technology at George Brown College, that he hit the one he thought had potential: Use drones to shoot specially formulated seed capsules into the ground – at 10 times the normal speed and cost 20 percent less than traditional methods.

“It struck me as something that could have the biggest impact on carbon emissions, could be done right away and was the most scalable,” he says. He proposed the idea to his brother, Cameron, now COO, and their friend Angelique Ahlstrom, now CSO and Flash Forest was born. His first goal as the company’s CEO: plant one billion trees by 2028.

The team took out a loan, bought a drone and used 3D printers at Jones’ school to make casts of the bellows.

“We made a rudimentary insertion system that we mounted on the drone that could prove the concept,” he explains. “We made 3,000 pods and planted them in southern Ontario.”

Now, just two and a half years later, the company has a fleet of drones – some to do air mapping, others to plant – with each capable of carrying thousands of pods per flight. Three operators work in a field, control five drones and create higher-skilled summer jobs. Flights take 15 to 20 minutes and the deployment speed is good, Jones says. The goal now is 100,000 pods per. field unit – but, he adds, they can and will do better.

Flash Forest could not have come at a more crucial time. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that UN Secretary-General António Guterres called “a red code for humanity.” The IPCC concluded that if atmospheric temperatures rise by more than 1.5 C over the next decade, the consequences will be catastrophic – this year’s forest fires are just a hint of what may come.

One thing that would help stabilize the climate, the report said, would be to increase global forest by one billion acres. In fact, about 26 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions come from the destruction of carbon-rich ecosystems, such as forests, grasslands and wetlands, explains Faisal Moola, associate professor of geography, environment and geomatics at the University of Guelph.

“The destruction of forests and other carbon-rich ecosystems is essentially making a bad problem much, much worse,” he adds. “We really risk triggering what some people have referred to as a carbon bomb, in which all the carbon trapped in our ecosystems is suddenly released into the atmosphere as a result of fires, deforestation and other forms of disturbance.” And because these ecosystems pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it away, they can act as “hedges or a handbrake against runaway climate change,” Moola notes.

Flash Forest’s big draw – and its big trade secret – is its seed capsule, which contains everything seedlings need to maximize germination and promote survival, including nutrients, predator repellents, moisture retention and a fungus called mycorrhizae. And its technology allows them to reach places after burning or remote areas that are difficult for traditional tree planting.

There are challenges every day, Jones says as they work on refining engineering, hardware, software and seed capsule recipes. Then there are the challenges from the climate – this year record temperatures, record high forest fires and drought. “It was something that was completely out of our control,” he says. “No matter how prepared we were, we had in one of the wettest regions of Canada 42C and no rain for a month.” Still, as the climate gets warmer and drier, Flash Forward can plant species that are more adaptable and resilient.

Unlike some traditional orchard forms of replanting, where one type of tree is planted row after row “like broccoli,” as Moola says, Flash Forest is focused on biodiversity. That’s one of the aspects that really excites Moola. “They diversify their seedlings so that they include not only a seedling but also other types of co-occurring plants that are biocultural, which are important not only for biodiversity but also for cultural purposes, especially for indigenous peoples,” he says.

Meanwhile, the company now has 20 employees and is growing. It has completed more than 20 pilot plantations, across BC, northern Alberta and central Ontario, and scales significantly up to the spring with several major pre-commercial contracts to plant trees in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. The team is also preparing for pilot projects in the Netherlands and Hawaii. “It’s wild, just to see the scale of growth, to go from our apartment to having two warehouses and a greenhouse and traveling tens of thousands of millions of dollars,” Jones says. “It’s very surreal.”

The technology is still relatively new, but more and more customers are curious to explore the opportunities it offers. The company has federal and provincial funding as well as corporate sponsors – mostly Fortune 500 companies trying to build their corporate social responsibility platforms. Flash Forest will also launch a Series A investment round over the next few months.

For Jones, the goal of planting one billion trees by 2028 is just the beginning. “I imagine the company plants on six continents – wherever our technology is needed,” he says.

Flash Forest is one of 10 companies in Mission from MaRS, a special initiative working to tackle the global climate crisis by speeding up the adoption of new solutions.

Nora Underwood is a freelancer writing about technology for MaRS. Torstar, the parent company of the Toronto Star, has partnered with MaRS to highlight innovation in Canadian companies.

Disclaimer This content was produced as part of a partnership and may not meet the standards of impartial or independent journalism.

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