Exclusive interview with Flashforest.ca: an incredible drone enabled reforestation project

PTN interviewed Flashforest, who are in their own words, “an aerial reforestation company that uses a data-driven, biodiversity-centric approach to rebuild healthy resilient forests at scale.” If humanity is going to sustain and repair the ecosystems on our planet, it would make sense to use the latest and most efficient emerging technologies to achieve this goal. This interview takes a look into the journey to “plant 1 billion trees by 2028 to heal our planet’s lungs, and not stop there.”

Briefly explain the goal of your work, and the approach you have taken to solving the problem.

The traditional hand-and-shovel, boots on the ground, style of tree planting method has gone relatively unchanged since inception. This approach is labour and energy-intensive, inefficient, and is quite injury prone. I’ve done a season myself – gnarliest work ever! We have big respect for tree planters and we need them. 

At Flash Forest, we plant in post-wildfire landscapes and are currently not working in the post-harvest market, where most tree planters are working in North America today.

Post-wildfire landscapes are often deemed too unsafe for tree planters, and wildfires have been increasing in size and severity over the last few decades (due to climate change, poor forest management/ over a century of fire suppression, and other factors). When severe fires pass through a forest, these ecosystems struggle to regenerate naturally (when fires are hot enough, even the cones/ seeds in the soil are torched along with the canopy – natural regeneration really struggles in these cases – E.g. Okanagan Mountain Park Fire – 2003 – my backyard growing up. 20 years later and the forest hasn’t returned! This is unfortunately not uncommon). Our solution is tackling these mid to high severity fire zones. By leveraging UAVs, AI, GIS, tech in combination with plant science and forestry science we bring new levels of speed, accuracy and precision and an intensely data-driven approach to the reforestation industry, improving safety, while reducing cost. That’s the goal. It’s a lot of work, but that’s what we’re doing.

What has your journey with this project been like up to now, how much progress have you made?

FF began with myself along with Angelique Ahlström and my brother Cameron Jones. After a POC, we launched our Kickstarter in fall 2019 with an initial goal of $10,000. By the end of our campaign, we had hit over $100K, which launched us into the process of making our mission a reality. Things really took off at this point. Our first hires, pilots, university partnerships and investment came shortly afterwards. Fast forward to present, and we’re 30 strong and growing fast! with skill sets across mechatronics engineering, plant science, forestry, machine learning, and business development. 

Since inception, we’ve completed over 40 pilot projects across Canada, planted 23 species, really fine tuning our pod technology, automated production, deployment systems, and field ops delivery. The company is now in the commercial scale phase, planting over 1M trees this Spring across BC and AB, Canada (team heads out on Wednesday and will be planting for the next 7 to 8 weeks). 

There’s also quite a lot of collaboration with climate-forward corporate entities, sustainable foresters, indigenous communities, governments, NGOs, and people from diverse backgrounds.

Where do you plan to plant these forests, what locations do you have any in mind?

Our vision is global. Right now we’re focused on reforesting post-wildfire landscapes across Canada. The team will be planting in the interior BC FDI zone, BC boreal forest, and montane forests (near the rocky mountains in AB). International expansion is coming! Right now there’s more than enough to keep us busy in our backyard in Canada.

What kind of organisations and governments do you need to work with to get permission to do this and make this dream a reality?

We’ve been fortunate to have established partnerships with many entities, and they’ve provided us enormous value, such as non-dilutive funding through grants and subsidies, talent, academic resources, knowledge, access to land and workspaces, seed, access to technology, mentorship, and award nominations to name a few.

We work with municipal, provincial, and federal governments through programs such as Canada’s 2 Billion Trees initiative (NRCAN), SDTC, Emissions Reduction Alberta. We have academic partnerships with U of Toronto and UBC, which have been enormously valuable and we can’t thank them enough. We’ve partnered with 2 accelerators, Earth Tech and MaRS. Both have been incredibly valuable and generous with their time and support. We also work with local landowners and Indigenous communities to ensure we are planting tree species endemic to the specific area, collaborate on the forest management plans, and involve them as much as possible in the planning and execution of projects. Finally, we work with climate-forward corporations and organisations (e.g. Telus, MOGO, etc.) to help them fulfil their sustainability goals through tree planting.

How many trees have you planted so far, and where?

To date, we have planted over 200K trees across British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario. 

What kind of innovation did you need to do to make this possible, and what kind of work was done on the technological side?

Behind every tree we plant is an enormous amount of research and development, across automated production engineering, mechatronics and plant science. Our pods have undergone over 100 recipes to get to the current recipe we’re using today. It’s continually evolving and being optimised to maximise germination and establishment rates. More and more species are being tested and validated in the greenhouse with our pods, before being brought into commercial operations in the field. Our drone deployment systems and software are improved year over year, increasing our planting efficiency and effectiveness of delivery in the field. 

What is the biggest technological challenge you have encountered, as well as the biggest business challenge?

Every week there’s a new technological challenge or business challenge. It’s difficult to name just one. A major challenge is always the unpredictability of the climate. 2020 was a very rainy summer, while 2021 was a heat dome year in BC. We don’t know what type of year awaits us, but we need to prepare for the worst. One way we combat this is by focusing on the pod technology, by building in desiccation resistance. 

I’m aware there are several other projects working on the reforesting idea using drones, AI and seed capsule guns, do you ever work with them or do you prefer to keep things separate?

Although we have not collaborated with other aerial reforestation companies to date, it is definitely not out of the question. As previously mentioned, climate action demands global collaboration. Should the opportunity arise in the future to work with other companies doing great things for our forests, it is definitely something we would explore. 

What does the next year look like for you, what do you hope to achieve?

This year is set to be the biggest one yet here at Flash Forest. We just closed a Series A funding round at $11.4M CAD. This will enable us to expand our team across the board, scale production and field ops, while continuing to invest heavily in R&D. This spring alone, our team will be planting over 1 million trees in some of the most severely-burnt ecosystems across BC and AB. We will also be debuting some new, next-level tech in the field, including new drones, newly optimised deployment systems, new pod recipe. All of which are set to boost our efficiency significantly (e.g. this Spring were set to have an 8X increase in planting rate over 2022) and get closer to our goal of 1B trees. 

Where is this project in 2025 and 2030?

This is always difficult to say! We prefer not give out our roadmap, but what I can say is that by 2030, we aim to have a billion trees in the ground, and planting on 6 continents. 

How much of an impact do you think this project is going to make on the deforestation issue and the CO2 removal process overall? Is this the special strategy that solves these issues, or will it take another leap of innovation ahead of this idea?

At Flash Forest, we are always innovating. Whether it’s in small increments or large leaps, we never stop searching for new and better ways to implement a solution towards our goal of mitigating climate change and biodiversity loss through reforestation. Note we have no intention of stopping at 1BT. 

Nature-based solutions are a key element in the fight against climate change. Before starting Flash Forest, I was searching for the most scalable way to have an impact on carbon emissions, and trees are one of the most obvious of achieving this at scale. Trees in Canada sequester 1 to 2 tonnes of CO2 on average over their lifetime. Each tree is 50% carbon, and once planted they do the rest. They’re incredibly effective. We simply give them a hand at the start by getting the seeds in the ground after a wildfire, packed in pods giving them the best shot at survival. 

By planting 1 billion trees, that’s at least a gigatonne of CO2 sequestered over their lifetime. This is significant, but it’s nowhere near enough to make a serious dent on the climate issue. Globally, we need everyone working on this. We need to decarbonize as a civilization as fast as possible and sequester the additional 1+ Trillion tonnes of CO2 that’s been released by humans since the industrial revolution. All solutions need to be leveraged and it will take a global effort. Reforestation is one solution and we’re bringing to the table a solution to automate, scale and reduce the cost of planting trees. Our hope is that what we’re doing here will inspire others to take action. Every individual has the power to take matters into their hands, change the course and create an inspiring future.