Time is money – and if there is one thing no company likes to lose then it’s cash. Therefore every idea that helps businesses to save expenses is a great idea. By those standards the idea of the French startup “Donecle” is mind-blowing as the company is able to save airlines and airport MRO up to 95% of time and human resources during aircraft inspections.
How is that possible? Basically in order to inspect any huge, hard to access object like the exterior of aircrafts, wind turbines or buildings it is necessary to use heavy and expensive equipment like cherry-pickers and elevators. In order to perform inspection of a plane, trained personnel needs roughly 8 hours.
Donecle is able to perform the same inspection in about 20 minutes using a swarm of intelligent unmanned aerial systems (UAV) which can be operated by a single person instead of typically 15-20 people. Within the field of commercial aviation this is of even more importance as aircrafts are struck by lightning once per year on average which requires immediate, unscheduled inspections. To put this into perspective: Airlines waste 250,000 flight hours on post-lightning strike inspections, incurring over $2 billion in maintenance costs and lost revenue yearly.
The reduction of the unpredictable downtime of aircrafts is the key selling point of Donecle’s solution but there are also some other technical advantages compared to common systems. The system’s central device is a ground station which automatically allocates the inspection missions to efficiently use the multiple UAVs and thus speed-up inspection time. As each drone can independently estimate its position relative to the environment using embedded sensors and processing power the swarm can be used indoors (e.g. in hangars) as well as outdoors.
The defects are detected and located on the aircraft in real time thanks to the integrated image acquisition system, onboard processing capabilities and lightweight algorithms. The collected data is analysed on the fly and high definition images with precise metadata including associated camera position, orientation and distance to surface are captured for easy integration with existing software suites.
In addition to the technical benefits, Donecle is also one of the first operators worldwide currently allowed to operate drones in airport airspace and has obtained authorisations from authorities to inspect aircrafts both inside and outside maintenance hangars.
As the young company recently joined the EBV supported startup accelerator Le Connected Camp within the IoT Valley near Toulouse, France we had the pleasure to catch up with the team behind Donecle and to ask Yann Bruner, CEO of Donecle several questions.
What special equipment did you fit to your drones in order to make them suitable for the aircraft inspection?
We integrate laser systems to precisely locate the drone. The accuracy of the positioning gives us the possibility to make the drone autonomous and if the drone is autonomous you can operate a swarm of drones, so the inspection of the aircraft is quicker. The laser positioning permits also to locate precisely the damage detected by our smart camera.
What are the biggest technical challenges in order to realise this project?
The biggest technical challenge is to make the drone autonomous as well indoors and outdoors. Most of autonomous drones use GPS and it works only outdoors.
Are there other tasks within aircraft maintenance/inspection which could be performed by drones in the future?
Today, we focus our activity to detect lightning strikes. During discussions with our customers, we learned that they are interested in the detection of other kinds of defects like missing paint on fasteners, marking non conformities or unclosed maintenance doors.
Will the system which you are developing currently be adaptable to other areas such as building inspection?
For sure, our system can be used for other applications like wind turbine visual inspections. Like for aircrafts, there are scheduled and unscheduled inspections and the wind turbine industry assesses also the lightning strike impact. Fast inspections are needed since wind turbine downtime represents important revenue losses.
How is LeConnected Camp helping you to achieve your goals?
Le connected camp gives us the opportunity to be in contact with several mentors who can advise us and increase our development speed. Their return of experience is priceless. Because there is a whole ecosystem around IoT we can also mutualise certain resources like 3D printers or services like PR.
See the system in action in the video below and make sure to checkout Le Connected Camp here to find out more about the high-tech startup accelerator.