“We are building a big one,” says Janne Hietala, CEO of the factory that builds unmanned airships.
“Floating. Airship factory”, says the sign on the yard gate of the industrial hall in Joensuu.
From the open doors of the hall, light pours into the dark yard. The lawn has a frost beard grown by the night frost.
It’s the end of October, but the thrush is still buzzing in the bushes.
Hermanni Kärki comes to the door to say hello. There is no going inside without safety glasses, hydrogen is handled there, he instructs. No pictures are allowed inside.
The hall turns out to be a hangar, where the newest North Karelian vehicle invention is parked: an unmanned remote-controlled airship. Almost like a zeppelin but not quite.
Visitors are asked to sign a confidentiality agreement: non-disclosure agreement.
Kelluu oy is a company founded in 2018 that manufactures autonomously moving airships. According to the company’s own announcement, it has the only airship factory in Northern Europe.
It’s a startup that employs nine people, but it already has millions of dollars in funding. The owners are private Finnish investors.
The birth of the company is associated with classic startup characteristics: Kelluu’s founder Jouni Lintu developed the first prototype in a barn.
“This is North Karelian madness and a blacksmith’s raging ambition to be the best in the world somewhere,” says Kelluu’s CEO Janne Hietala.
“We are building a big one. That is the goal ambition.”
To float an airship is actually a imaging or sensor van designed for independent movement.
The remote-controlled airship, which is about 11 meters long, can carry a payload of about five kilograms. The payload typically includes a camera, but it can also be another sensor.
The filming height is usually 80–100 meters above the ground, but the ship has been experimenting with half a kilometer.
To float the airship differs from the classic zeppelin in that it does not have a rigid but a semi-rigid body. The airship has a volume of 22 cubic meters and is filled with hydrogen. The lifting capacity of helium gas is not sufficient for the ship. Helium would be too expensive to use anyway.
“Hydrogen is handled safely these days. This is not significantly different from hydrogen cars,” says Hietala.
“This is not significantly different from hydrogen cars.”
Hietala assures that the airship will come down safely to the ground, even if there is a hole in its side. Due to the lightness of the ship, it lands softly and the impact energy is low.
“It drains very slowly. The jacket brakes effectively and acts like a parachute, even if it tears completely. After all, hydrogen travels upwards. If someone hit the airship with a burning halo and it started some kind of fire, the fire would go up.”
According to Hietala, the structure of the airship is unique and it has its own patents, thanks to which the shape of the ship remains the same and the lift does not change significantly, even if the ambient temperature and air pressure change.
Without hydrogen, the airship weighs less than 25 kilograms. Hietala says that the development work has been a game of grammar so that the lift would be sufficient and the airship economical.
“Regarding the airship’s autopilot, we are researching how to navigate optimally in different weather conditions. We had a meteorologist at work thinking about how to plan the optimal flight route taking into account the weather and flight conditions,” says Hietala.
An airship not flown if the wind is over seven meters per second.
The ship typically travels at 20–25 kilometers per hour, but the top speed is around 50 kilometers per hour. However, at high speed, the ship’s energy efficiency suffers. So far, the airship’s longest flight time has been 12 hours.
The airship’s shell is a light multi-layer composite. The coating is currently a silvery metal film, but it is a temporary solution. The future ships will probably be a transparent substance that does not disturb the gps signal.
The airship is moved by a small electric motor at the back that uses a fuel cell. The ship does not have the traditional moving control surfaces of aircraft, but is controlled by a rotating engine.
The airship moves and turns with amazing agility. “Thrust vectoring”, explains airship technician Kärki.
Although Kelluu has established an airship factory, its purpose is not to manufacture airships for sale.
“We don’t sell anything out,” says Hietala.
Instead of airships, Kelluu sells data collected by its ships.
The airship can be used, for example, for inspections of critical infrastructure. According to Hietala, there are thousands of kilometers of power lines to be inspected in North Karelia alone. They are usually inspected by helicopters, drones or foot patrols.
“Drones don’t fly for long, a helicopter costs money and produces noise and emissions. The work of a footman is slow,” sums up Hietala.
Airship sensors can also be used to study the state of the environment, natural resources and forests, such as damage caused by letterpress beetles.
“Yes, it’s an interesting business if you can do autonomous continuous imaging and produce a service from it at a fraction of the price of current systems and with practically zero emissions.”
Hietala reminds us that at the end of the day, customers are usually not interested in the trick with which a description was made.
“Very few customers have wanted to look at aerial photos. Customers want to know the bottom line: where there are typographical bugs or where there is a potential problem with critical infrastructure.”
Kelluu doesn’t want to be just a photography service company.
“We would lose a large part of the market if we only described and did not refine the services. We are increasing our expertise in data processing and processing. We don’t yet have the ability to process a large amount of data.”
To float the purpose is to build an airship ground station network covering the whole of Finland.
According to the vision, the whole of Finland could be covered with five ground stations. Each ground station would have ten airships. Each airship would be able to autonomously perform filming missions within a radius of 200 kilometers.
The airship is designed to fit in a sea container. In this way, the construction, maintenance and logistics of ground stations have been made as easy as possible.
“The way Jouni Lintu has planned for this in terms of logistics and sea containers – it’s something unique, which at best will revolutionize the entire aerial photography business,” says Hietala.
Have you had discussions with the defense administration?
“There have been discussions. It would be interesting if something useful could be done with this for security in the country,” says Hietala.
“Of course there are applications on the security and monitoring side.”
A stationary airship can observe its surroundings for days in calm weather. Hietala admits that Finland’s NATO membership will also change the market situation.
“There is nothing to say about this now. Of course, there are applications on the security and monitoring side. Sea container logistics means that we can set up a land station very quickly anywhere.”
Floating plans to build two new airships this year. At first, one airship will be made per month. However, the goals are in Europe, where there is enough critical infrastructure.
“Five years from now, the Europe-wide operation will build 6-7 airships per month. It’s not an impossible number. We have enough business in Europe that we don’t need to think beyond Europe.”
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