Sharper Shape: The sky's the only limit for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) inspection

Sharper Shape, a company based in Espoo, inspected electricity lines for the first time by means of an UAV a couple of years ago. Now business has taken off and the company is heading overseas.

There are few branches of industry where new ideas for applications and product development originate almost exclusively from customers. However, Sharper Shape, which uses UAVs to inspect the condition of power lines and forests, is in a situation like this.

"We receive ideas and suggestions almost daily. Customers approach us directly either by phone or email," says CEO Tero Heinonen.

He does admit that the company has got off to a good start because of positive media attention. Newspaper articles and TV footage inspecting power lines soon resulted in additional orders within Finland and now also abroad.

"We are starting up projects in France, Mexico and Belgium, among others. Assets inspected include not only power lines but also gas and oil pipelines, and wind farm, bridge and railway structures. Customers from a variety of industries seem to come up with new applications for the UAV all the time," says Heinonen.

Saving time and money

Sharper Shape's innovation has been to combine a fast UAV with a wide operating range to smart analysis software making use of laser scanning, among other things. As a result, customers receive real-time information on, for example, a power line running through an uninhabited forest and trees growing near the line.

"A route that takes days to cover on foot can be inspected with a UAV in a matter of hours. What you then get is a report and comprehensive information which the power company can use to plan and implement any maintenance work," says Heinonen.

Business is boosted according to him not only by rapid development in software and satellite positioning but also in UAV technology. The current operating range for a single flight is about 100 km with a flight velocity of up to 100 km/h.

"Reliability and performance are improving all the time, so the same amount of money will get you better and better equipment from one year to the next," he says.

New growth from the cluster

Sharper Shape's roots lie in a development project that started in 2012 when the UAV idea was first tested and used in real-life conditions. One of the key providers of funding was Tekes.

"Tekes was in fact crucial in getting the company started," says Tero Heinonen.

The company founded in 2013 in Espoo has also networked with European Space Agency (ESA) experts who, according to Heinonen, have a very nice touch on start-ups and SMEs. Thanks to this cooperation, it has also been able to utilise remote sensing data provided by satellites, resulting in even more comprehensive inspection services.

"This enables us to combine the local map data to a bigger picture, so to speak, containing any group cutting areas or storm damage," he explains.

The company currently employs 11 people. Their turnover is now in the region of one million euros.

The industry has clear growth and export potential, because they already have expertise in software and sensor technology. Finland is also one of the first countries to create a set of standards for unmanned aviation that also provides commercial incentives.

"Tekes help has been significant, both operating in the background and providing expert support. In future it could act as a catalyst to create a proper cluster in the field of unmanned aviation," says Heinonen.

Text: Recommended
Image: Sharper Shape

Kaj Nordgren