Finnish researchers lay the groundwork for flying drones

A large, sparsely populated country, Finland is preparing for a future where it could rely on flying drone technology

A new aerospace research and development (R&D) centre called Lift is the latest in a series of collaborative efforts to help develop drone technology – and a drone industry – in Finland. The project involves a community of experts, and one of the founding members is VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.  

Owned by the Finnish state, VTT is one of the Europe’s leading research and technology organisations (RTOs). Its role is to advance the utilisation and commercialisation of research and technology in business and society.  

Roughly one-third of the funding of VTT comes from the Finnish government, and another third comes from publicly and jointly funded projects, such as EU projects and national projects.

Hannu Karvonen, senior scientist and ecosystem lead for autonomous systems at VTT, says: “The other third comes from commercial projects, funded by customer work, which is usually under non-disclosure agreement [NDA] and cannot be discussed publicly. These commercial projects usually involve applied contract research for a specific organisation or group of organisations.”

VTT’s involvement in this latest project stemmed from Karvonen’s work in building an ecosystem with partners five years ago. The ecosystem, called Rethinking Autonomy and Safety (RAAS), focuses on autonomous systems and on drones. 

Since drone platforms integrate several different technologies, running such projects plays to one of VTT’s strengths: a large organisation with research in many different domains can bring together a range of experts with relative ease. The ecosystem gives people a formal way of collaborating, drawing from expertise in robotics, remote imaging, space research, battery development, safety research, and human factors engineering, which is Karvonen’s area of focus.  

The state of the art of drone technology 

The current generation of drones – or more specifically, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – works mostly through manual controls, with one human operator controlling a single drone. Typically, flights are planned to allow the operator to see the drone at all times, maintaining direct visual line of sight. 

One of the current challenges is keeping drones in the air for a longer time and having them travel longer distances. Weight, weather conditions and battery power are all constraints. Once batteries improve to handle longer flight times and heavier payloads, then some of the more interesting use cases will start to make sense from a business perspective. 

Another set of hindrances standing in the way of large-scale use of UAVs is public acceptance. The public is not yet ready to have drones buzzing around in the air. Most people find it annoying – and some are even scared. 

“I think we need to put more emphasis on public acceptance and human factors, before drones can be used more widely,” says Karvonen. “There is some acceptance when it comes to drones performing emergency and rescue missions, but we aren’t yet ready to put up with them for less critical application, like delivery.”

VTT performs a wide range of research and innovation services and solutions to support development of unmanned aerial systems (UASs). They are working on drone autonomy and swarming – and related AI algorithms. They are also building and operating airspace management test environments in Finland. One important project is getting manned and unmanned aviation to work together to be in the same airspace. 

Another key area VTT is working on is making drones more weather resistant. With the harsh winter weather in Finland, VTT is well situated to help develop drones that operate in arctic conditions. 

It also helps develop solutions for emergency situations – for example, for the detection and monitoring of forest fires. They are particularly involved in developing the concept of operations (ConOps) for complex socio-technical systems where human factors play an important role. The work habits and practices of expert users have to be taken into consideration. 

“We look into the kinds of user interfaces that are needed in the command-and-control centre to manage a critical situation,” says Karvonen. “Related to that, we are also working on augmented reality-based visualisation and control for drone operations, which is an interesting, futuristic area.”

VTT is also working extensively on different kinds of power sources that will enable future drones, including battery and hydrogen technologies, such as fuel cells. Those technologies will enhance the flight times and make bigger payload possible in the future. 

Then there’s sensor technology, computer vision solutions, and even radar development for counter-UAS solutions, which is when you detect drones from the air and force them to come down – for example, when an aircraft is illegally flying in an airport environment or around a stadium. Those solutions generally target security and defence-related applications.  

Naturally, since UAVs are flying around in the open, they need good connectivity and cyber security. VTT is working on those things too.  

The importance of drone technology to Finland 

“Based on a recent study, Finland is one of the world leaders in the impact of its drone research,” says Karvonen. “We have high-quality research here, but we also have an industry that brings the technology to market. We have companies that produce drones and that can offer the entire technology stack and operate in a lot of application areas.” 

Drones are also used in Finland for aerial photography and video. Video streams provide good situational awareness – for example, for police and firefighters. In fact, the Finnish police are the biggest drone operator in the country. 

Another big use case in Finland is in building and infrastructure inspections. UAVs are used to check buildings for heat leaks and for checking the condition of bridges, or wind turbine blades. They are used to monitor energy systems, checking the condition of power lines and inspecting the environment around the power lines.  

Finland is one of the world leaders in the impact of its drone research. We have high-quality research here, but we also have an industry that brings the technology to market
Hannu Karvonen, VTT

Half of Finland is surrounded by sea, so flying drones are useful in detecting oil and chemical spills or for “sniffing” gases from ships to monitor emissions. Drones are used for remote mapping and for security surveillance, monitoring industrial areas and patrolling the border. Search and rescue – looking for missing or lost persons with a heat camera – is a big application. 

Wing, an Alphabet company, is operating in Finland, delivering food by drone in Helsinki. They deliver to a particular area during the summer when the weather is good. Last year, an experimental system was trialled to deliver emergency defibrillators to heart attack patients. 

“We have very collaborative regulatory and safety authorities,” says Karvonen. “They are positive towards innovations in general and drone solutions in particular. That’s why Wing has been able to do its operations here. 

“Another driver for drones is that Finland is a big country, and we need to support the remote areas. Drones can work as relay nodes to enhance mobile network coverage. If there’s a big forest fire in some remote location, for example, you can provide better connectivity to the area. Nokia and other companies are interested in these kinds of things, which enhance the mobile network.

“In September, VTT and partners announced the new research centre in Finland for drone and UAM operations, called the LIFT Future Aerospace Centre. We can do all sorts of experiments in the new test centre, which is located at the Helsinki-East Aerodrome. It’s sort of like a testbed for doing things in this real aerodrome environment.”

Research on all-weather resilient UAS is important for Finland as well as for the rest of the Northern Europe and places like Canada. Finland can offer winter testing for drones, like they already do to test car tires in Lapland. VTT has set up an icing wind tunnel where they generate harsh weather to see how well drones hold up.  

Another important use of drones is in detecting a source of smoke and going to that source to check whether there is a real danger. It could just be a fireplace or a campsite fire, but if it’s really a wildfire, monitoring the wildfire from different angles from the air can be done by using different kinds of sensors, such as thermal cameras.  

“You can see through the smoke with this kind of camera, so you can see where the fire front is advancing, at what speed and so on,” says Karvonen. “That kind of information is very useful for the fire brigade to support situational awareness when combatting a large forest fire and organising the firefighting crews in an efficient manner. If the fire occurs in a remote location, then high-speed connectivity might be set up for that area with the help of drones.”

Drone technology over the next five years 

To prepare for the future, VTT developed a five-year impact roadmap. One thing they expect is a broader range of unmanned traffic management (UTM) services across Europe. Better traffic management will enable a lot of things, including drone-based logistics. It also allows the level of automation to be raised in a safe manner and for a combination of manned and unmanned aircraft to operate in the same airspace. 

In the future, semi-autonomous operation will become more commonplace, as will beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. Furthermore, one operator will not necessarily control just one drone – they might even monitor a fleet of drones, which autonomously carry on their flight paths or their missions. The operator would intervene only when necessary, such as if a technical problem arises or an unexpected event occurs. 

Karvonen adds: “I see three general trends in the future. One is that aviation is going to be green and clean, with solutions aimed at carbon neutrality, using electrical propulsion systems or hydrogen-based power sources, such as fuel cells.

“Another big trend will be servitisation. That can mean anything from on-demand mobility services like taxi flights for private persons to on-demand fast logistics over air. It’s becoming more commonplace that you don’t have to always buy things, but you use a service.

“Then the third trend is autonomy. Higher levels of automation enable all sorts of things, including swarming.” 

Swarms of drones are gradually being implemented in a limited fashion in specific areas, such as search and rescue missions, disaster monitoring, and fighting wildfires. But VTT expects drone swarms to become more commonplace once the level of autonomy rises. This will enable new use cases, such as surveying geographic areas or organising rescue missions very efficiently. 

Even when the level of autonomy increases, it will still be necessary to have control rooms, command and control centers that allow human operators to take over when necessary. In a badly designed control centre, the operator might have to spend hours just monitoring UAVs – and then after 12 hours, something happens, requiring intervention. By that time, the operator may not be paying attention. 

“A big challenge with these higher levels of automation is how to keep the operators engaged in the process of what is happening and keeping their situational awareness on a good enough level,” says Karvonen. “We are working on some user interface solutions to support this vigilance and situational awareness in a better manner.” 

Operators will be able to assess the environment of drones on screens and through other sensors. Future human interfaces will have to be meaningful and interesting enough for an operator to control swarms of drones in remote areas. VTT researchers are working to make the systems as robust as possible. After all, mastering drone technology is not just an interesting area of research for Finland. It is also a necessary part of the country’s future. 

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