The intelligent drones of the future will cut their teeth scanning forests in Finland

If you want it to deliver pizza, it should learn how to not run into trees.
If you want it to deliver pizza, it should learn how to not run into trees.
Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The future of fully autonomous robots may be built by a company that is laser scanning the boreal forests of Finland with drones. Helsinki-based Sharper Shape is already bringing a new approach to forest surveying, which is vital for Finland’s electricity grid. But its founders also want to be the top vendor of intelligence systems for drones—and not just in Finland. Sharper Shape wants to put a brain in every unmanned aerial vehicle worldwide.

How does it plan on making drones smarter? It’s all about lasers. Founded in 2012, Sharper Shape currently focuses on solving one of Finland’s biggest power infrastructure issues: the forest. With such dense and extensive tree growth, laying down power lines in the most efficient manner possible—avoiding trees without making the line longer than it needs to be, choosing which trees need to be removed, and so on—requires extensive land surveying. Helicopters are used to speed up the job, but that still requires a lot of man hours, both to fly the vehicles and to collect and analyze the data. By using laser scanning systems, Sharper Shape made the job a little easier.

In current practice, a Sharper Shape laser device is attached to a helicopter that flies over the forest to be surveyed. As the onboard lasers scan the ground and plot trees and other objects in 3D, software interprets the data to categorize each object in real-time. The system then analyzes the data about the forest to provide the most efficient locations for laying power lines. The software can even distinguish between a healthy tree and one that might fall down—that’s vital, as a dead tree could easily fall on a power line. The laser will eventually allow Sharper Shape to ditch the helicopters in favor of unmanned vehicles.

“For a drone to be useful in real life,” Sharper Shape founder and CEO Tero Heinonen told Quartz, “it needs to understand its environment, not just gather data or follow a pre-programmed route. It needs to be able to say, that’s a human, that’s a tree…and then make rational decisions based on that information.”

Because of current European regulations, Sharper Shape will be relying on a loophole to use not-quite-unmanned vehicles for a time. By having a ground crew that keeps in touch with the drone—even though it will move mostly autonomously—the company can squeak by current restrictions. “Of course, this isn’t long-term,” Heinonen said. “Eventually we want a fully automatic fleet, with no ground crew involved whatsoever.”

The capabilities that will allow the company’s drone to fly through a dense forest and to map it intelligently—the ability to distinguish and recognize objects, and react to them in real time—is something that all drones will need to fly unmanned. With eight patents pending, Heinonen is counting on it. “We’re looking to become a vendor to anyone using drones,” he said, mentioning Amazon as a potential customer. “But we realize that Helsinki is a bad place for this business.”

Sharper Shape plans to this spring set up shop in the US. “Quite a lot of companies are starting to prepare for a new era of aviation,” Heinonen said, “and it will totally change the way many industries work.”