Skyqraft: The Swedish start-up taking AI to the skies

8 Feb 2021

Skyqraft co-founder Sakina Turab Ali. Image: Skyqraft

With seed funding secured, Skyqraft intends to take its AI-powered inspection drones to new heights.

Swedish start-up Skyqraft had a great start to 2021 with the announcement of $2.2m seed funding led by Subvenio Invest. This funding will support furtherer development of Skyqraft’s power line inspection system, which uses drones and artificial intelligence (AI).

Right now, Skyqraft is targeting this tool at the US and European markets. “Our mission is to become the leading power line issue detection system globally, enabling our customers to conduct smarter and safer power line inspections in a more cost-efficient and environmentally sustainable way,” said co-founder Sakina Turab Ali.

How it works

Skyqraft uses computer vision technology to analyse images captured from the air. “The images are focused on power line poles, crossarms, insulators and other objects. Skyqraft detects these objects and marks them on each image,” explained Turab Ali. “We also detect real-world issues like fallen trees, leaning trees, damaged insulators and missing protective weather hats.”

What the AI-driven system detects is then presented via a map interface based on Google’s satellite images. “This gives the end user the feeling of a Google Street View system based on images from their own power lines taken from drones or helicopters,” said Turab Ali.

She said the software behind the system is scalable for terabytes of images. The machine learning element kicks in after the drone has landed and images are uploaded to Skyqraft servers. They are analysed in batch mode on modern GPU servers.

As well as interest from investors, Skyqraft has courted some early clients, including the three largest utility companies in Sweden. The company is negotiating further contracts, including major deals with two global partners. It’s also planning a series of large-scale US pilots this year with Spanish multinational Iberdrola.

The founders

Turab Ali leads this expansion as chief growth officer, bringing her experience launching products and services globally to her own company. “Before my start-up, I worked as a marketing manager at Truecaller where I was a part of growing the users from 30,000 to 100m,” she said.

Her fellow co-founders are David Almroth, who is CEO of Skyqraft, and Umar Chughtai, the company’s CTO.

Aerospace engineering graduate Chughtai worked for a couple of years with drones and machine learning at the robotics lab in the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, while Almroth’s background is in software development, with more recent experience in machine learning.

This isn’t Almroth’s first start-up. As CTO of gaming company MuchDifferent, he worked on a massively scalable game server that saw the company reach a Guinness World Record for the most players taking part in an online first-person shooter battle. Crucially, Almroth also has experience working for power companies such as Swedish multinational Vattenfall and Germany-headquartered Eon.

Challenges and opportunities

Seed funding will help Skyqraft hone the detection features and accuracy within its system while pursuing its growth goals in Europe and the US. This round included participation from Antler, Next Human Ventures and some angel investors. “In a start-up, we are always looking for investments and we think in about 18 months we look to raise our next funding round,” said Turab Ali.

She admitted that raising investment is challenging, requiring a lot of effort and focus, and recruiting the right talent to bolster the team while seeking investment has been tricky. Long sales cycles are also a high hurdle when dealing with utility companies. “[They] take a lot of time in making decisions to move into something that is so advanced compared to the traditional methods they use with helicopters and people on the ground to inspect their grids.”

But Turab Ali doesn’t shrink away from a challenge and believes entrepreneurs must “learn to handle discomfort”.

‘It is actually other people’s perceptions that keep you from striking out on your own rather than the fear of the unknown’

“Starting a company means doing things that put you in uneasy situations. Just accept doing things that are uncomfortable by asking for help and advice. Eventually, any potential awkwardness will roll off your back,” she said.

The Sri Lankan entrepreneur knows this from experience. “I moved to Sweden about eight years ago. My Swedish is not perfect but I am great at sales. Every customer call is pretty uncomfortable for me, but I always make sure I start the conversation by telling them about my language skills.”

This feeds into Turab Ali’s other nugget of advice for entrepreneurs: “Overcome your fear of failure. Many people hesitate to do something because they’re afraid of failing. Don’t fear to take an opportunity. Remember that it’s possible to recover from even the worst situations and that often it is actually other people’s perceptions that keep you from striking out on your own rather than the fear of the unknown. Take risks and learn. Learning is the only way to make intelligent decisions next time.”

Fortunately for Turab Ali, she has found herself in a supportive environment in which she can learn, try and, indeed, fail. “The biggest opportunity for start-up entrepreneurs in Sweden is that the market here is welcoming and supports innovative ideas,” she said. “That, in combination with the fact that Sweden is a relatively small market, means it is perfect to test new ideas on a local scale and later scale globally if the product has been received well.”

She also complimented Sweden’s efforts on gender equality, and the support of the start-up community. “I love how one start-up helps another through their networks, mentors and advice. It gives us a better understanding of our product and helps us tackle challenges while we build our start-up.”

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.