By Scott Simmie
A Canadian startup has ambitious plans to deploy long-range, high-payload drones for reforestation at scale.
Using an extended-range, heavy-lift drone and patent-pending Machine Learning, the company calculates it could drop one million seeds in a single mission. Not only that, but it could plant seeds for different species in the most appropriate locations.
“We are a reforestation technology company,” explains CEO and Founder Trevor Grant. “We are going to be deploying heavy-lift unmanned helicopters coupled with AI machine learning to scale reforestation to industrial levels.”
That’s an impressive goal. Let’s look at how KiDrone plans to achieve it.
Many of the startups we’ve met over the years were founded by engineers. But CEO/Founder Trevor Grant is a lawyer by trade. So how did he wind up starting a venture involving drones and reforestation? Well, a couple of things happened.
First, he happened to watch a documentary on Netflix called Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet. It was about climate change, and the need to take urgent action on a global level. The following day, he happened to be reading an article about Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights. And then he started thinking.
“It tweaked in my head, perhaps the largest impediment to this (reforestation) is labour supply. And fleets of autonomous drones might be able to tackle such a problem at scale,” says Grant. Plus, he was also thinking about his children, living during an unprecedented era for planet earth.
“There was a genuine desire to leave the world to my kids better off than it was left to me,” he said during an interview at Toronto’s Collision conference.
And so KiDrone was soon born, with a mission to drop enough seeds to truly make a difference. But not just haphazardly. To ensure the best results, seeding would need to be targeted – with the correct species dropped in locations best suited to their survival and the broader ecosystem. Plus, the seeds would need to be coated.
“Seed encapsulation technology has been around for a very long time, but mainly in the agricultural sphere, not much for the reforestation or restorations sphere,” explains Fatima Mahmud, KiDrone’s Chief Scientific Officer. Mahmud is an environmental scientist born in the Middle East and who studied at the University of California, Berkeley, before obtaining her Masters degree in Toronto.
“Some of the reasons for encapsulating a seed, for aerial seeding specifically, is number one: It increases the flowability of the seed through the (dispersal) mechanism. Number two: It adds weight to the seed so the seed drops to the site. You can also add materials or compounds to the encapsulation that can deter pests and predators. And making the seed uniform allows it to find a suitable microsite in the soil once it’s dispursed.”
Below: Encapsulated seeds at KiDrone’s Collision display
Going from an idea to a viable product or service is a voyage – just ask any Startup. And the first part of KiDrone’s path has been to demonstrate that this is a viable, doable solution.
“It’s been a two-year journey to validate our hypothesis and validate where direct seedings works and where it doesn’t work,” explains CEO Grant. “Because direct seeding isn’t a cure-all for all reforestation needs. It’s highly effective in many situations – but not all.”
Post-wildfires (and Canada has had many this year), is a very promising use-case. Grant says high-intensity fires can consume the natural seed inventory that might be on the forest floor.
“So there’s a need for direct seeding at that point. Where direct seeding struggles is in drought-prone conditions,” he says.
TARGETED SEEDING USING AI
It’s not that difficult to deliver seeds via a drone. In fact, some companies have been dropping seeds and seed pods successfully. What differentiates KiDrone is its planned use of AI – and a proprietary seed dispenser capable of holding the seeds of 12 different species and disbursing them selectively. By examining multiple data points during flight, the drone will autonomously dispense the seeds best suited to particular locations based on the mission profile.
“There’s thousands of data points for any given site – climactic, GIS, various forms of imagery or LiDAR, soil lab results – an endless amount of data you can get to classify or gain conditions on a site,” explains Grant.
“And that will all lead to whether certain species may or may not be optimal (for a specific location), and what other species might be supportive. Our AI will be able to determine which trees are more likely to succeed in which areas. Because we’re not interested in monoculture or pine nurseries. We’re very interested in a more holistic reforestation approach that includes many different species, supported species, and Indigenous species of medicinal worth and spiritual worth.”
That last part is very important to KiDrone.
“Our biggest commitment is to work alongside the Indigenous communities where we operate. It’s their land and it’s their traditional territory. They should be the ones directing how reforestation happens. We simply view our roles as facilitating the reforestation goals that they have.”
Below: Founder/CEO Trevor Grant at the Collision conference.
THE NUTS AND BOLTS
It’s clear, speaking with CEO Grant, the company is working toward its goal via a methodical, evidence-driven trajectory. There’s been a lot of work on seed encapsulation so far though a partnership with the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT), as well as a flight using a crewed helicopter for dropping encapsulated seeds. It successfully seeded 40 hectares.
“Our largest concern is validating where the seeds will grow, not where the drone will fly,” he says. “We’re concerned about the science behind encapsulation and determining where it’s effective to seed and where it’s not. We’re putting the science first, because we’re looking to do this for the next 20 years and not simply flip a carbon offset project.”
Existing startups doing seeding tend to use multi-rotor designs, which limits the distance they can cover per mission. Here, KiDrone differentiates itself by planning to use a much longer-range drone. The company has established a relationship with Scheibel, a manufacturer of UAVs (and landmine detectors). The company has a long-range uncrewed helicopter called the S-100. It can carry 50 kilograms of payload (seeds plus dispersal mechanism), and has an incredible range – up to 1000 kilometres, says Grant.
“The great thing about having such a large airframe that we’re looking to deploy – we’re able to carry 12 different species in one flight,” he says.
“So mid-flight, while travelling at 100 kilometres an hour, the system will be able to disperse an entirely different species, change the ratio of species being disbursed, add different nitrogen fixers or supportive species, all autonomously, based on AI and a seed-planting pattern that is pre-loaded to the mission.”
Below: A seedling that germinated from one of KiDrone’s encapsulated seeds. Image courtesy of KiDrone
THE BUSINESS CASE
There can be no question there’s an environmental demand for reforestation at scale. KiDrone’s pitch deck states “Reforestation in Canada is broken.
“Since 2010, Canadians have lost more than 44 million hectares of tree cover due to timber harvesting, wildfires, and commercial development. This represents an urgent, unmet need and opportunity to radically transform how industry & government deliver and scale reforestation in Canada.”
And with the devastating and deadly wildfires of 2023, the country has lost even more of that tree cover. The current system, of using human beings to plant seedlings, simply cannot keep up with the demand. It’s also inefficient – and there are vast tracts of forest in Canada that are simply inaccessible.
The big forestry companies also tend to have reforestation deficits, where they simply have not been able to reforest at a rate equal to the harvesting of timber. Plus, the KiDrone deck points out, “Corporate Canada’s demand for carbon offset opportunities vastly outweigh the current supply.”
So there’s not only an environmental imperative, but there’s also a strong business case. The company has been targeting three different sectors:
- Top 12 Canadian forestry companies, each with reforestation requirements > 25k hectares
- Federal & provincial forestry departments “focused on post-wildfire timber supply mitigation”
- Carbon credit offset buyers and sellers
It all equals huge demand for a service like this, says Grant.
“Endless,” he says. “I think the wildfires we’ve had to date are a good example of of how large the reforestation required is in Canada alone – let alone globally.”
The company’s business model projects dropping 10k seeds per hectare in the future, with a 20 per cent viability rate. That comes out to 2,000 trees per hectare, at $.50 per tree. That’s $1,000 per hectare. Based on operating one drone and starting operations in 2024, its revenue projections climb to more than $1.2M by 2026 – and that’s with a single drone deployed. And because costs are low when compared with traditional tree seeding/planting methods, nearly all of that revenue would be profit.
The company is currently in a seed round (and we’re talking capital here, not trees), which its hoping to close late this summer or early fall. Once complete, there will be some additional immediate hires and KiDrone will be in “an early operational state.”
Grant is aware that BVLOS permission won’t be automatic, so he anticipates some of the early deployments will be VLOS, or operating with specific SFOCs.
We’ve been through the Startup path, and know of the many challenges that come with the territory. But we also know a good idea when we see it. KiDrone has clearly identified its market and has laid out a solid path to commercialisation. It’s also a perfect application of autonomous technology for the Three Ds – taking on jobs that are dirty, dull and dangerous.
“In an era of climate change and with record-setting temperatures, getting more trees on the planet at scale helps all of us. I see this as definitely a Drones For Good application,” says Indro Robotics CEO Philip Reece. “I also really like seeing that KiDrone is taking it slow with an evidence-based approach – and a solid business plan. I look forward to hearing about their first deployment.”
You can learn more about KiDrone here.