Sometimes the best idea can be so obvious and so close at hand that it goes unnoticed. Tomi Karjalainen, Veli-Matti Lähteenmäki, Ville Karjalainen and Elisa Ylimäki lifted their eyes to the blue sky of a hot summer day – and then it clicked. The foursome established Silvadrones Oy, which is pioneering the use of spraying drones to save Finnish forests from a shortage of boron

The common factor for Tomi Karjalainen (PhD, Agriculture and Forestry), Veli-Matti Lähteenmäki (Master of Agriculture and Forestry), Ville Karjalainen (Master of Agriculture and Forestry) and Elisa Ylimäki (Bachelor of Natural Science) is their studies at the University of Eastern Finland. The combined intellectual capital of the four is top notch – forest strategy, climate change, multi-use of forests, tree quality, remote sensing, wood materials science, economics, research, project impact and internationalisation. Everyone has also had enough work experience chalked up to make the choice between employment and entrepreneurship an easy one.

– ‘The desire to have an impact, the possibility of implementing things our way, and overall freedom’ says Veli-Matti Lähteenmäki, Chairman of the company’s Board of Directors, when listing the reasons for choosing entrepreneurship.

At Silvadrones, Elisa Ylimäki is responsible for strategy and marketing. Already during her studies, she was combining chemistry and economics.

– ‘The idea of entrepreneurship had been there in the background for a long time. And when the boys wanted to do their own thing and choose entrepreneurship, then there is was,’ says Ylimäki.

Oh how tiresome!

It was a hot summer day in 2020. Tomi Karjalainen, a forest owner himself, was having a bistro lunch with friends and pondering the lack of boron in his forest holding. At its worst, boron deficiency can inhibit forest growth. The trees develop trunk defects and become multi-topped, bushy and prone to frostbite.

– ‘Boron deficiency in forests is somewhat similar to iron deficiency in humans. Haemoglobin levels go down and you feel tired and weary. What is needed then is a course of iron pills to restore energy and vitality. Boron does the same for forests,’ explains Ylimäki.

So spraying is needed, therefore, not only to take care of future logging yields but also to protect the forests’ recreational value and the well-being of its plants and animal life. But the idea of trudging around the forest with a knapsack sprayer on his back did not inspire Tomi Karjalainen one little bit.  That’s when one of the guys threw out the idea of a spraying drone.

– ‘We put the coffee on at home and started googling to see if we could find such a machine. And we did. It wasn’t long from then before we started crafting the business plan,’ Ylimäki remembers.

The budding entrepreneurs contacted Business Coach Kari Pulkkinen from Business Joensuu. The honing of the business plan then continued through their participation in Business Joensuu’s business accelerator.

– ‘The business accelerator has developed our thinking and expanded our perspectives. We have gained good ideas on how to move the business forward from start-up to ongoing growth. We have also concretely benefited from the funding advice – in addition to our own capital, we have now accessed ELY funding as well.

For ordinary forest owners

Forests with boron deficiency are particularly found in field afforestation areas, old slash-and-burn land and former pastures of central and eastern Finland.

– ‘Nothing extra is added to the forest in boron fertilising, but rather it involves simply returning to nature what belongs there. This trace element may be lacking because people have worked the soil in the past,’ Veli-Matti Lähteenmäki explains.

The Silvadrones service is built for ordinary forest owners. The use of the spraying drone is a very convenient option, especially for smaller holdings and ones that are awkwardly shaped. Another plus from the forest owner’s perspective is the Government’s Kemera programme, which provides support for forest management measures.

– ‘Forest owners are becoming more diverse, more urban, and younger, and the size of holdings is decreasing through the division of inheritances. While the maintenance work may in the past have been more of a hobby for the forest owner, this new generation of owners are willing to hand it over to the professionals,’ says Ville Karjalainen, Silvadrones’ Research and Safety Officer.

The entrepreneurs consider open and straightforward dialogue with forest owners to be absolutely key. The Silvadrones’ customer can dare to ask, and the details of forest management are not buried in professional terminology.

The drones’ optimized flight path, radar-based flight altitude control and downward airflow ensure high-quality and even results. What also strengthens the dialogue with forest owners is that all of the stages of the spraying drone work leave a visible trace. The forest owner is also always welcome to follow the progress of the spraying work.

– ‘Routes, flight altitude, fertiliser consumption: we can provide the forest owner with very detailed information about all of these. This openness builds trust,’ emphasises Tomi Karjalainen, the company’s drone operator and technology manager. He is responsible for planning and programming the flights.

To your health!

With Silvadrones, the impulse for exploring a business opportunity came from a personal experience: the slow and awkward operation of a knapsack spray. This everyday experience is then enriched by the entrepreneurs’ powerful blend of training and expertise and their desire to bring renewal to the traditional forest sector.

– ‘After all, this is the best innovation for Finnish forest management since the chainsaw or the harvester,’ they emphasise, confident of the wisdom in having taken a bird’s eye view of the problem.

The commercial use of large spraying drones is not found anywhere else in Finland – and it was also something new for Traficom and the insurance companies. To obtain the certificate required in Finland, the manufacturer of the device had to verify what happens to the drone at the end of its life cycle.

– ‘The legal interpretations regarding drone use have gone a bit differently in Finland compared to the rest of Europe, where drones have been in use for a longer period. In Spain, for example, spraying drones have been used during the corona pandemic to spread disinfectants,’ says Veli-Matti Lähteenmäki.

Now, approval for Finland’s first spraying drone equipment has been secured.

– ‘And when carrying out flights, one must be savvy with all the requirements of aviation legislation and its precise protocols,’ explains Ylimäki.

What brings the biggest smile to the entrepreneurs’ lips, however, is the fact that they were the ones who realised the most important thing: boron is a forest health fertiliser, not a plant protection product. Therefore, it is possible to spray boron mixed with water from a drone. Indeed, not only is it possible, but also sensible, cost-effective and safe.

After all, this is the best innovation for Finnish forest management since the chainsaw or the harvester

Text: Sirkka-Liisa Aaltonen / Viestintä Ässä Oy
Images: Jarno Artika