Matthieu Claybrough and Josselin Bequet, the company’s two co-founders, were supposed to receive their award in person on March 12th in Washington D.C., USA, but the ceremony was postponed due to the ongoing health-related events.
Matthieu Claybrough answered our questions about the company’s beginnings and its spirit of exploration which, beyond causing a revolution in the visual inspection of aircraft, is unique in that they recruit young engineers from ISAE-SUPAERO.
Could you give a short overview of how you started your company in Toulouse in 2015, and the keys to its growth?
The Donecle adventure started with an observation: visual aircraft inspection hasn’t changed over the past 40 years and has many disadvantages. These inspections are still long, expensive, and require a large amount of equipment for access to the upper parts of the aircraft. They raise safety issues for the inspectors who work at heights, and they lack traceability and repeatability over time – it was high time for a revolution in the way we perform these inspections. The idea of using drones quickly became the obvious solution to provide a real answer to these problems. Donecle was founded in 2015, starting with three years of research and development to design a unique drone platform, gain a mastery of automatic flight, and develop the software and algorithms for machine learning to help inspectors in their image analysis. Their collaboration with Air France Industrie KLM E&M starting in 2018 was then key to getting concrete feedback and validating the solution’s relevance.
Since then, the Donecle team has grown on the technical side and has developed its commercial aspect, which has enabled them to expand their capacities to new types of aircraft and new cases of use while developing their market access. They are now have a number of customers and partners in the civil and military markets around the world.
Could you tell us how ISAE-SUPAERO has contributed to Donecle’s success?
ISAE-SUPAERO is a stakeholder in the Donecle story. For starters, two of its founders went to school there, notably to learn navigation and guidance, which are the basics behind the automatic technologies used at Donecle. So the company quite naturally turned to ISAE-SUPAERO to initiate its first research partnerships, proposing projects to students and working closely with researchers on targeted subjects. This partnership has also enabled Donecle to take advantage of the school’s testing resources, such as the indoor drone flight area. Recently, this link took another step forward with the launch of a CIFRE* thesis. Lastly, students and graduates from the school have the perfect profiles for Donecle; they alone make up more than half of the navigation and guidance team!
You are recruiting at ISAE-SUPAERO, what are you looking for in these profiles and what do they contribute?
Donecle regularly recruit people from ISAE-SUPAERO, for several reasons. The first is no doubt the highly specialized theoretical training students receive in several areas such as automation, aerodynamics and computer sciences, which is a guarantee that they have a firm grounding enabling them to understand and contribute to the company’s projects. The second aspect that we truly appreciate is the pragmatism and the practical efficiency that their training fosters, notably thanks to the many technical offices that take up these concrete cases of dimensioning and analysis. Furthermore, these activities often deal with subjects that are representative of industrial needs, using tools that have been widely deployed such as Matlab, for example. These programs and experiences make it easier to effectively integrate newcomers and to fill in the gaps that sometimes occur between school and real work in a company. Lastly – and this is very important – Donecle is looking for motivated people with a passion for aeronautics! And what could be better than a school specialized in the field to find people with a passion for drones and airplanes?
You are in a highly competitive niche market – what makes you different and what is your strength?
Today, we are the most advanced company in the market with a solution that has been industrialized, marketed and deployed at airlines and MRO centers, for several reasons.
From a technical point of view, 3 years of R&D have enabled us to gain a mastery of in-flight automation for drones with patented technology based on laser positioning – there is no pilot, no GPS and no sensors on the ground. This technology makes it possible to provide total coverage of aircraft such as the A320 or the Boeing 737 in less than an hour. The drone also integrates many parameters that ensure flight safety (system redundancy, obstacle detection, etc.). In terms of image analysis, we have developed a large image database and defect samples thanks to more than 1,000 flights we have undertaken, which are used to train our algorithms – a real competitive advantage.
Furthermore, our offer is quite unique in that we propose comprehensive solutions. We not only provide an automated drone, but also the image analysis software for generating inspection reports, the cloud platform for improving the traceability of these inspections, training for the teams and customer support. Our solution is easy to use and can be deployed quickly on our customers’ premises and be included in their maintenance process.
Lastly, we have a strong customer base and we work closely with producers and the aviation authorities, which gives us real legitimacy in the market and provides us with user feedback that helps us develop our solution.
How do you foresee the future of your business? Do you plan to branch out into sectors other than aircraft maintenance?
Today we are still focusing on aircraft inspections, a field in which we feel there is still much to be done. Our goal is to develop cases for use as well as flight capacities to be able to inspect other kinds of equipment in the civil and military fields, both indoors and outdoors. At the same time, we are also working on making our automatic analysis algorithms more robust through machine learning. Lastly, our objective is, of course, to continue deploying our solution among airlines and maintenance centers and to grow our customer base around the world.
*Since 1981, the CIFRE (Conventions Industrielles de Formation par la REcherche – Industrial Agreements for Training through Research) system has provided subsidies to all French companies that hire PhD students to work in collaborative research with a public laboratory. The work must contribute to the preparation of a doctoral thesis.