Sharper Shape eyes United States utility market.

By Ann Bailey | January 21, 2016

Sharper Shape, a UAS company founded in Finland, has put down roots in North Dakota soil. Tero Heinonen, Sharper Shape founder and CEO, this winter re-located his business to the University of North Dakota Center for Innovation in Grand Forks.

Sharper Shape Ltd., which Heinonen co-founded in 2014, is located in Europe, Asia and South America. Heinonen believes  his UAS company which surveys power lines, railways and pipelines, can offer unique service to U.S. utility companies.

Backed by 15 years of remoting sensing research, Sharper Shape Ltd. employs the LIDAR system to capture images of power lines. Sharper Shape, which uses NextEagle UAS, can target problems in specific sections of the power lines captured in the images, such as drooping or frayed power lines, and offer the utility companies solutions, Heinonen said.  

Sharper Shape can offer utility companies the “whole stack,” including platforms, systems, data collection and data analysis, he said. The company, which conducted pilot projects in 2014, began to make inroads into the overseas UAS market surveying utilities in 2015, Heinonen said.

“It’s going to continue this year in the United States,” he said.

Heinonen acknowledges that the state of UAS regulations in the U.S. makes it challenging for companies like Sharper Shape, the first company in Europe which received a permit to fly beyond visual line of sight.

However, once the FAA finalizes the regulations, flying UAS in the U.S. will  actually be less complicated than it is in Europe where each country has its own set of rules, Heinonen said. And once beyond visual line of sight UAS operation is approved in the U.S., he expects many utility inspection surveys which now are conducted from four-wheel drive vehicles or helicopters, will be done by UAS.

Heinonen believes that UAS acceptance by the general public poses a greater challenge than FAA regulations. UAS companies, such as Sharper Shape need to convince the general public of the value of using UAS for projects such as surveying utility lines, he said.

For example, a Finnish farmer who was observing a Sharper Shape UAS survey power lines was angry when he approached Heinonen and questioned why he needed to fly the unmanned aircraft, Heinonen said. When he replied to the farmer “To keep your lights on,” the farmer understood the importance of the UAS power line survey and turned and walked away, Heinonen said.

Besides saving utility companies money by reducing the number of employees needed for surveying and educing power outages for customers, UAS power line surveys have potential to save lives, Heinonen said. Estimates are that 50 power line company workers annually are electrocuted, he said.