Probably the best satellite data and AI based service for the forestry industry – see yourself

You will definitively be surprised if you visit the premises of the newly founded space company Satellio in Helsinki. You’ll find arguably the world’s best satellite-based monitoring and analysis service targeting the forestry sector.

The company, Satellio, founded in 2015 by Lauri Häme and Joni Norppa, is specializing in space-based services for forestry – the ‘green gold’ of Finland – partly by chance.

“Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre launched a project aimed at turning their research into commercial activity, and I thought the remote-sensing knowhow they had in the area of forest mapping and analysis had quite a lot unused possibilities,” explains Häme, who was in those days a researcher at the University of Helsinki.

Häme, who prefers working to talking in the stereotypic Finnish way, asked his friend Norppa to join the new business, as it needed a spokesperson and promoter. Norppa’s background is in the corporate world, but he has some entrepreneur blood in his veins.

“I guess I declined a couple of times, but I couldn’t get rid of the idea of doing our own business and doing something new. So we founded Satellio, and I have had no second thoughts about starting a new career in the space business.”

In addition to Häme and Norppa, Satellio now has two additional full-time employees plus several freelancers who step in according to the workload. The company is logging orders rapidly and is expanding.

Jari Mäkinen
Joni Norppa (left) and Lauri Häme from Satellio.

A little help from government

Satellio got the best possible launch for a company when it was granted a contract from a new national programme aimed for boosting the forestry industry. The Finnish government asked VTT to coordinate an effort aimed at creating an open-source system for mapping forest information and the current status of logging activities in real time.

Subsequently, VTT hired Satellio to lead the pilot effort. The company is responsible for the process of remote-sensing data-acquisition from satellites, followed by data handling, managing of the information and developing the interface providing customer access to the end products.

The Natural Resources Institute of Finland provides the project with the field observations and the Finnish Environment Institute takes care of some preprocessing of the data downloaded from a number of satellites, including European Sentinels and Landsat-8 of the United States’ National Oceanocraphic and Atmospheric Administration.

“We have had excellent results from the project and we’ll turn this pilot into a full-fledged service,” says Norppa, with pride in his voice.

Tracking changes with AI

Until now, almost all other projects tackled by Satellio have related somehow to forestry.

The company has developed a software tool used by electrical power companies for surveillance of power grid lines. Using satellite data, the power companies can pinpoint areas where trees potentially pose a danger to the lines. The data help the companies plan maintenance efforts in which crews travel out to the power lines and cut trees that have grown too close, which can be problematic especially when storms cause trees to fall onto lines.

“We have already demonstrated that our tool saves money as storm damage is less severe and the companies can more efficiently plan logging activities that are conducted near the lines,” Norppa states.

“Basically, what we do is track changes in the forests and fields by combining satellite imagery and multiple sources of ground data — including aerial photographs and observations from specialized sensors – using algorithms, artificial intelligence and automated processes,” Häme continues.

“This data can be used for monitoring and analysis services in many fields, though up to now we have mainly served the forestry industry.”

The main source of data from space is Europe’s Copernicus system, which includes a fleet of Earth-observing satellites dubbed the Sentinels. The data are free, frequently updated and provide resolution sufficiently good for forestry applications. Optical imagery delivered by the Sentinel 2 satellites is particularly useful.

“Of course we’re also interested in radar data from satellites, because radar can penetrate clouds and doesn’t care about the night. The quality of the imagery is not yet as good as we need and processing the data requires more time and effort,” Häme says.

He also points to the Finnish national forestry databases as an excellent source of field observations, which are a valuable asset for the company.

“The data we have from the Finnish forests is not only free, but also accurate and very high quality. I think Finland is right now the best place in the world for developing these kinds of services.”

Satellio 2

Satellio grows up

When Häme, as the CTO and main source of the innovations in the company, focuses on technical development of the new monitor service, Norppa, as the CEO and primary salesperson, is excited about a expanding it globally during 2018.

“Our business idea is DAAS – meaning ‘data as a service’ – for detecting the multiple kinds of changes now happening in the environment. The client needs simply to frame the area they’re interested in and we can provide the required information.”

“The next logical next step for us are the Nordic countries, North America and Russia, the areas with similar forest types and climate as here in Finland. But naturally, we’re also interested in other areas, especially developing countries.”

According to Norppa, sometimes developing countries are very welcoming, because the local forestry infrastructure lacks the systems and maturity that we see in countries with established forestry institutions. But satellites like the Sentinels are fast and cost-effective means for gathering information from the vast areas of forests in many developing countries that have been poorly or not at all surveyed.

“Quite often there’s also a need for quickly finding areas of illegal logging.”

Both the young men behind Satellio are very aware that they’re part of the space business. They attend the same conferences as the big international aerospace companies launching and developing the next generation of Earth observation satellites, and with researchers studying the planets and stars or even with famous astronauts, but their role in the space industry is perhaps not so visible.

“We need to remember that the reason for launching satellites is to gather new types of data with increasingly better resolution and quality. And someone’s got to use the data for producing different kinds of information products. The satellites are a tool, not the reason for the space business.”

Ironically, when companies like Satellio do their work properly, the end customers sometimes don’t even realize they’re using data sourced from satellites.

Lauri Häme and Joni Norppa are fine with that – they have in any case lots of work to do today and in the future.

Text, photos and video: Jari Mäkinen