Laser Equipped Drones to Scan Paths through Finnish Forests

    Some of you may recall the latest hype in the American delivery business – Amazon’s new army of self-aware Unmanned Aerial Vechicles, also known as UAVs, will be seen in a few years buzzing across the American skies, delivering anything from books to headphones to the baffled recipients of online deals made through the website. It’s tough to be sure what to think of it, as the whole project seems so ambitious that it seems hardly possible for it to work without at least a few delivery casualties. Then again, if it turns out to be successful, other businesses are sure to raise interest towards other possible uses for aerial drones.

    One company who has really put an effort in studying the pros of UAVs is Finnish startup Sharper Shape. Originally created with a year’s collaboration between major Finnish utility companies and a devoted group of engineers, Sharper Shape had a very specific problem it set out to solve from the very beginning.

    Finnish utility companies have for a long time had difficulties in finding more efficient ways of clearing pathways for power lines through the dense and spread out forests of Finland. Traditionally, this would require a good deal of manpower and extremely costly helicopters, who would manually observe, calculate and analyse the possible routes. Hours of hard work would then be under risk of being overturned by a wind gust blowing a weak trunk over the completed power line.

    Sharper Shape does exactly what was previously done, but instead of relying solely on manpower, they decided to do part of the job with automated drones that have been programmed to analyze data gathered with the help of lasers. The high tech concept has been fancily named ACCA, or Automatic Corridor Clearance Analysis.

    In practice, a laser device is attached to a drone, which is then flown above the designated area through which the utility company wants to build a power line. The laser beams scan all the surfaces below, while the build in software communicates all the information to the company network. The softwares interpret the collected data and start picturing 3D images of all the objects the laser has detected. These 3D objects can be classified to a variety of different categories, such as buildings, trees and even the trees that are in risk of falling down.

    Planning the corridor clearance object-specifically makes the actual clearing more logical and logistically practical. This results in the most cost efficient path through the vegetation, while avoiding all obstacles that put the power line under any serious risk of future malfunction.

    This clearance plan is the final product Sharper Shape eventually bills its clients for, of whom Sharper Shape is not in the risk of running short of, as it is nationally the only service provider for fully automated corridor clearance solutions. Well not entirely automated, yet.

    The technology Sharper Shape uses is still very young and there is more than a little to improve. The drones intelligence needs to be developed, as for now they require human supervision and occasional guidance when doing their tasks. Today, the analysis is still done with the assistance of Helicopters, which according to Sharper Shapes Technical Specialist Ville Koivuranta, makes up the majority of the costs for corridor clearance. He believes near future will bring major advancements in UAV technology, meaning more automated drones and less expensive helicopter rides.

    Even with the helicopters still in the equation, the automated technology and the analysis software has decreased the cost of corridor clearance by 3 to 5 fold, depending on the case. Once the helicopters are unnecessary Koivuranta says the cost efficiency could rise up to 10 folds.

    This certainly has raised interest towards the company and their product. Sharper Shape has already started planning other possible uses for the drone technology with their clients, as well as preliminary discussions with foreign mapping companies. Koivuranta mentioned an example for drone use in the future could be in border patrolling.

    The company is advancing on a steady pace towards self-financed income, with some help from Tekes and the client founders. Next year’s first quarter will open Sharper Shape’s investment round which will aim for something between €500 000-€1000000. These funds will be used for further research and development of the Automated Corridor Clearance Analysis and the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle’s use in practice while Sharper Shapes 8 patent license applications will secure the companies production efforts to their right owners.

    It’s a brave new world out there, and hopefully companies who seek to solve essential problems for larger industrial entities by means of modern technology, will keep on emerging. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for the first Amazon drone collision to happen.