It is a time-consuming and very unprofitable activity for the airlines. The Toulouse startup Donecle has been developing since 2015 the automation of the visual inspection of aircraft using drones and last year became the first company in the world to receive the qualification from Airbus to carry out this type of operation. One or more drones equipped with cameras photograph the surface of the device. Image processing algorithms detect areas of interest on the fuselage and classify them as faults or not. A qualified inspector can then validate the analysis reports. All in less than two hours, enough to generate significant savings for airlines knowing that the cost of immobilizing an aircraft is around 10,000 dollars per hour. Over the years, the startup has expanded its range with another model suitable for outdoor visual inspection and a 3D version for spotting damage and dents on aircraft.
Today, around twenty Donecle drones are in service with airlines (Air France, Air Austria, Latam), the Air Force and even at Charles-de-Gaulle airport. And two French regional airports are preparing to deploy their first system.
Engine inspection has become strategic
But the startup based at IOT Valley, in Labège, does not intend to stop there. Last spring, it announced the acquisition of Dronetix, a start-up that has developed an inspection solution for aircraft engines and landing gear.
“You should know that an engine is about a third of the price of the plane, it’s also about a third of the maintenance costs, so it’s a part with a very high added value. However, the motors are large enough that using robotic arms becomes excessively expensive and this is the reason why small drones make sense to carry out the inspection. We can go see the same customers to offer them this additional service,” argues Matthieu Claybrough, co-founder of Donecle.
Drones are used to perform inspection at the entrance and exit of the maintenance workshop. ” This allows to check that the engines are returned in exactly the same condition or that the requested modifications have indeed been carried out. The other advantage is to guard against warranty claims. The parts are transported between several airports before being delivered and the end customer can rely on the slightest scratch to request a discount on the invoice. The drone makes it possible to guarantee the conformity of the parts. We have also developed an artificial intelligence brick programmed to detect the most frequent quality problems »details the entrepreneur.
Diversification towards offshore wind turbines and ships
In addition to this additional service, Donecle began to think during the Covid about diversifying into other industrial sectors so as not to depend solely on aeronautics. This is how the Inemar project was born (Inspections of Wind Turbines at Sea by Robust Automatic Drones). Carried out with the Toulousain Diodon and the Isae-Supaero in particular, this program aims to automate the inspection of wind turbines at sea using a drone and an underwater robot. The solution, which will be tested off the Mediterranean in 2023, should allow significant savings in time and safety on this type of operation.
“A wind turbine blade and an airplane wing use the same manufacturing methods and essentially the same problems: hail, lightning or bird strikes, corrosion, etc. LOffshore wind turbines are more and more expensive and it is more and more complicated to access them, hence the need to find very reliable inspection solutions. We didn’t want to go to onshore wind turbines where there is already very tough competition with many drone operators who already offer this service. And since they are easier to access, it is possible to use low-cost drones and our solution would probably be too expensive”, deciphers Matthieu Claybrough.
The co-founder of Donecle is considering other maritime use cases. ” We are already inspecting the Rafale on board the aircraft carrier so we are already somewhere in contact with this environment. We can realize the external inspection of ships or submarines knowing that these are again very expensive structures with very high added value “, he adds. In the longer term, Donecle sees the arrival of reusable launchers as an outlet for rocket inspection.
To carry out all these projects, the 21-employee startup is planning a recruitment plan for twelve additional employees from the start of 2023. At the same time, it is in the process of completing a fundraising campaign of three to five million euros. to support this growth.
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Donecle is preparing to raise 3 to 5 million euros to expand its drone inspection offer
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