Tero Heinonen has a vision for a world where unmanned aircraft fly along millions of miles of power lines, railways and other major infrastructure.
The aircraft would fly out of their pilots’ sight to monitor structural condition and return with data that would be analyzed and used to assist utility companies in making decisions regarding the maintenance or management of their property.
“This is not science fiction, though at first it may sound like that,” said Heinonen, CEO of Sharper Shape, a company that uses unmanned aircraft to inspect utility assets such as power lines, railroads and cellphone towers.
On Jan. 20, Heinonen introduced himself, the company and his vision for the future of the unmanned aircraft systems industry to an audience gathered in Grand Forks for Prairie Buzz, a monthly event that features UAS-focused speakers.
Sharper Shape is headquartered in Palo Alto, Calif., while its research and development division is located in Helsinki. Recently, the company established a technical and operations center in Grand Forks.
In the U.S., the company has begun to form partnerships with utility companies in order to demonstrate the possibilities of using unmanned aircraft for inspections.
Inspections completed by crews or helicopters both have drawbacks, Heinonen said. Manual inspections can be tedious and, in some cases, dangerous. Helicopter inspections are expensive and can be considered disruptive to people who may be living or working nearby.
Annually, Heinonen said utility companies in the U.S. spend billions on inspection services. Moving to unmanned aircraft as inspection tools would give companies the ability to speed up processes, cut down on costs and automate maintenance schedules.
In Finland, Sharper Shape was given authorization in 2014 for flights beyond the line of sight of aircraft pilots. Unmanned operations in the U.S. haven’t been cleared for this type of flight by the Federal Aviation Administration, but once they are, Heinonen said it will make completing inspections with drones even more cost effective.
Flying beyond the line of sight would allow an aircraft to cover more miles more quickly than if a pilot was required to observe it in person.
This year, Sharper Shape wants to partner with the Edison Electric Institute, an association that represents U.S. investor-owned electric companies that employs more than 500,000 people.
Through that organization, Heinonen said crews will perform demonstration flights and encourage participating companies to determine how the technology could benefit them.
“Don’t buy the drones and start thinking of where to use them,” he said. “Think first of what you need and then think what kind of solution will meet your actual business needs. It’s a no-brainer, but everybody gets so excited because of the technology.”
Sharper Shape would work with companies to develop flight scenarios that may be encountered, such as inspecting power lines and poles for defects or monitoring vegetation growth around infrastructure.
Prairie Buzz is held every third Wednesday in the UND Center for Innovation. The event is open to the public. Doors open at 5 p.m. with speakers starting at 5:30 p.m.