2023-04-05 | New Roads Magazine
Having devoted his entire career to environmental sustainability, Grant Canary knew the direction that wildfires were trending was unsustainable. Data showed that wildfires in the U.S. were increasing in number and intensity, and destroying trees faster than new seedlings can be grown by traditional methods.
So Canary set out to give nature a little technological help, founding a company called Mast Reforestation. Mast uses drones to strategically drop seeds in areas devastated by wildfire, pairing that approach with traditional reforestation methods.
The drones used in reforestation are not the hummingbird-like machines you may have seen neighbors flying at the park. They’re more like cargo helicopters.
“These aircraft are 8 feet in diameter, have six rotors, and carry 57 pounds of seed per aircraft,” Canary says.
The drones use LiDAR (a remote sensing method like radar that uses a laser instead of radio waves) to build a three-dimensional map of the scorched terrain. Mast processes that data and selects spots that look promising for planting while avoiding inhospitable areas like gravel roads, blackberry patches, and rocks.
The drones are then programmed with flight patterns and loaded with seeds. One operator pilots three to five pre-programmed drones — Mast calls them drone swarms — that move in concert, planting as they go.
Drones work quickly and can easily reach remote and treacherous areas. “Traditional replanting can cover about one to two acres per day,” Canary says. “Aerial replanting is six times more efficient, depending on the ecosystem.”
A look at some of the tree species Mast plants in its reforestation efforts.
Based in Seattle, Mast is one of several sustainability startups using drones to help regrow forests lost to wildfires. Developing the technology to spread seeds was relatively easy. The tricky part was coming up with a way to package the seeds that would allow them to take root and survive.
Mast uses a specially designed mixture of seeds and nutrients wrapped in puck-like packages it calls seed vessels. One of the ingredients is a type of hot pepper that keeps squirrels and other herbivores from eating the potential trees for lunch.
In September 2021, to help with the seed side of the business, Mast acquired Silvaseed, a 130-year-old seeding supply company. Canary says his company has expanded Silvaseed “to become the largest private seed bank west of Colorado.”
Funding for reforestation projects comes from an array of sources, one of which is forestry and mining companies that are required to replant trees. Another funding tactic Mast uses is leveraging forward-looking carbon removal credits. Companies looking to reduce their future emissions help fund today’s reforestation projects.
Canary points out that Mast uses aerial reseeding alongside traditional planting methods. “The two methods are used together to increase rates of success,” he says.
While it’s not yet clear precisely how effective drone reforestation will ultimately be, any help will be a step in the right direction.
“For a long time, I was intrigued by technologies that could remove carbon from the atmosphere and reduce carbon dioxide,” says Canary, whose résumé includes work with the U.S. Green Building Council and wind energy projects in China, Denmark, and the United States. “I came to the realization that the best technology is trees themselves, and they are the only currently viable method that is scalable and cost-effective.”
STORY: CHRISTOPHER WALTON / ILLUSTRATIONS: SWISS COTTAGE DESIGNS / PHOTOGRAPHY + VIDEO: MAST REFORESTATION