Flying high in Finland

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Finland’s unique location in the world makes it fertile ground to develop aviation technology.

It’s not easy to get around some parts of Finland. Much of the country is forested, thousands of lakes give road-builders headaches and deep snow covers the land in the winter. Yet these supposed obstacles can actually be a benefit if travelling by air. Finland’s extreme weather conditions, undeveloped wilderness and forward-thinking regulators have made it a source for aviation innovations.

While Anssi Rekula was a Finnair pilot he heard many of his colleagues suggest traveling to lakefront summer cabins by seaplane. This sounded like such a great idea that he decided to do something about it. The result is Atol Avion, a company which makes two-seat amphibious Light Sport Aircraft. They have an endurance of nine hours and are popular among recreational and private pilots.

“Finland is a fairy-tale land for this type of aircraft because we have so many lakes,” Rekula says. “But the Atol 650 LSA also has conventional landing gear and you can even equip it with skis. You can go from water to land to snow on the same flight.”

Atol Avion first built amphibious planes back in the 1980s, but the company was on hiatus before Rekula teamed up with original founder Markku Koivurova to start production again. The result is a new, modern aircraft with a history. While Finland’s geography spurred the creation of such a light sport aircraft, some of its natural resources by means of wood composite went into its construction.

“Finnish wood is perfect for this because it is light, but it also has strength and density because of our slow-growing trees,” explains Rekula.

The plane is no simple wooden flyer, though. As one might expect from a Finnish aircraft it is packed with innovative technology, from an electric water steering system to telemetry which sends information back to the owner and Atol Avion headquarters.

“We like to innovate a little further,” he says. “Aviation has been the same for too long.”

Runway sensors 

The basic concepts behind modern aviation may not have changed much, but a lot is different behind the scenes.

“In the early 1970s pilots were informed about runway conditions by different colored lights on a wooden board,” says Jon Tarleton, head of transportation marketing for Vaisala. “It is very sophisticated today.”

Vaisala is a world leader in airport weather systems. Finnish winter weather can be a challenge to airport operators, but modern technology can help make things run smoothly. The trick is having the right information at the right time.

“With our Runway Weather Information System we put sensors in the runway,” Tarleton points out.

“The sensors determine the temperature and whether the surface is wet or dry. Sensors use electricity or fibre optics to detect the amount of chemicals on a treated runway.”

Tarleton says that this system is common at practically all airports which experience cold weather conditions. It is apt that Vaisala is based close to Helsinki Airport, which has been praised in the international press for how well it deals with winter weather.

“The data from the runways can be combined with data from atmospheric weather stations and forecasts so the airport operations staff has the best information,” he says. “They know the situation of the runway from one end to the other.”

No pilots needed 

Finland’s geography and climate may spur innovation in aviation, but authorities are also encouraging. The Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation Tekes has a special campaign for the unmanned aircraft industry.

“Finland is an excellent place for drone companies,” says Piia Moilanen from Tekes. “The legislation is very liberal and authorities are cooperative. We also have many ICT specialists in the workforce who are interested in these new business areas.”

More than 1,000 companies which specialise in unmanned aircraft call Finland home, and most are startups. Mosaic Mill does aerial surveys, Arbonaut does natural resource management, and Pohjoinen Group has created a small drone which can be carried in a backpack and operate in extreme temperatures.

“I have seen all sorts of great business ideas,” Moilanen continues. “There are companies which use drones to measure air emissions, inspect trees growing in power lines, do geological surveys for mining companies and even use thermal cameras to find leaky pipes.”

She points out that Finland’s wilderness areas make it a perfect place to develop long range drones. In August 2016 the Avartek company flew an unmanned vehicle from Finland to Estonia. This was a test of technology – switching ground bases mid-flight – as well as cooperation between national aviation authorities.

“Beyond Visual Line of Sight unmanned aircraft are going to be a big industry,” says Moilanen. “But before it can happen we have to test the technology as well as how authorities can work together. What better place to do it than Finland?” 

Text by David J. Cord
Illustration by Jukka Pylväs

This article was originally published in Finnair's Blue Wings magazine (February 2017).

 

Published March 22, 2017

Category: Local features

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