Celebrating 4 years of SkeyDrone: An interview with our founding team

As SkeyDrone marks its fourth anniversary, we take a moment to reflect on the incredible journey we’ve undertaken on since our beginnings. From the inception of an idea to the thriving organization we are today, each step of the way has been filled with challenges, triumphs, and countless opportunities for growth.

To celebrate this milestone, we sat down with the dedicated individuals who have been with us from the start – the backbone of our company: Tanguy De Waele (Head of Engineering), Jean-Pierre De Muyt (Regulatory Expert), Tom Snyers (Product Manager), Ward Gubbi (DevOps Engineer), Stijn Jonckheere (UX Designer) and Hendrik-Jan Van Der Gucht (Managing Director). Together, they share with us a trip down memory lane.

The outcome of a value proposition workshop in the early days

“In the early days, SkeyDrone was fully owned by the Belgian Air Navigation Service Provider skeyes” (now Brussels Airport Company is also a shareholder, red), recalls Tom, who previously worked at skeyes. “Transitioning from skeyes to SkeyDrone was a big step for me personally, being a very structured and well-organised individual, leaving a large and safe environment for a brand new start-up in an emerging market. Until today, I’m still grateful to have accepted the challenge and I’m really proud of the products and services we’re delivering. However, in the beginning, I felt SkeyDrone wasn’t taken serious as an independent player in the drone industry and we were often perceived as ‘the drone department of skeyes’.”

Jean-Pierre, our esteemed veteran team member, played a pivotal role in reshaping this perception. “I really enjoy preaching all regulatory aspects of drones,” he shares. “Today I’m honored to be regarded as thè drone evangelist in Belgium, positioning SkeyDrone as a true thought leader in the drone community. My convincing skills also came in very handy just before SkeyDrone was founded, when we needed to persuade skeyes’ Board of Directors to create a new drone-dedicated company. I remember using the metaphor of needing a speedboat instead of a tanker in this new and rapidly evolving market.” Our metaphorical speedboat set sail quickly and delivered SkeyDrone’s flagship product: the Drone Service Application (DSA), aka skeyes’ Uncrewed Traffic Management Platform.

Tanguy De Waele signing his contract with SkeyDrone in 2020

Tanguy, who had been working over 10 years at EUROCONTROL and a passionate drone user in his free time, was initially hired as architecture consultant. However, as soon as SkeyDrone started building the DSA, he was wearing multiple hats, including the product manager and lead developer hat. “Jean-Pierre and myself crafted the prototype for the full DSA in only 15 days,” he reminisces. “We locked ourselves up in a meeting room from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. every day, meticulously crafting the vision over a flip chart, laying the foundation for a product that still stands today. Meanwhile it’s been expanded for military use and special air activities, turning it into an full blown lower airspace authorisation platform.”

After the prototype had been approved by skeyes, SkeyDrone only had 6 months to get it fully developed. “We urgently needed to hire more employees” continues Tanguy “and this is how Ward and Stijn joined the company. As we were in complete lockdown due to COVID-19, we had all our conversations via video calls and we only met in-person for the first time when the DSA was almost completed.”

While our senior team members reflect on the development of the DSA as a turning point, our younger team members offer a different perspective. Stijn shares “When I joined the company after the DSA’s inception, the team relied mostly on my coding expertise to create the interfaces that had already been defined. Once we started developing our SaaS products, I seized the opportunity to fill a gap in product design, championing user experience. Since then, I’ve been more involved with customers by developing and showcasing prototypes before development, as well as supporting our product managers with helpful user experience insights. The longer I remain part of the team, the more I’m able to express my creativity, which I highly value in my profession.”

Ward adds a memorable anecdote about the early days of SkeyDrone Monitor, an application to monitor air traffic in real time. “Conducting a demo for an electricity transmission operator, we had travelled to the Ardens as the customer was ready to perform an inspection of the overhead powerlines there. Picture a group of software engineers around a van in a field of cows with a handful of laptops at hand! The inspection was performed by a large drone helicopter that could be seen from a few kilometers away. All of us were impatiently waiting to see this drone appear on the horizon as we were keeping a close eye on the software. Going through that experience and watching all the different components come together, from the software, the drone operators and the planning, to the execution of the inspection itself, was an eye opener for me as this was the first time we really saw the full potential of our software in real life.”

Hendrik-Jan shares a similar sentiment, about when he realized how SkeyDrone could make a real difference for citizens. “Being a music lover, I was thrilled when our Drone Detection as-a-Service was deployed at Tomorrowland last summer. The local police confiscated 12 illegal drones that were attempting to fly above the festival terrain where 65.000 people were having the time of their life. Keeping in mind the incident that happened one year earlier in the UK at a performance of Fatboy Slim where a drone pilot flew his drone onto the stage and narrowly missed both the DJ and members of the crowd, it made me once again realize how important it is to develop tools that safeguard public safety in an increasingly drone-filled world.”

One thing is crystal clear: SkeyDrone’s pioneers are still as passionate and dedicated as the first days about the potential that drones have to offer to our society and about the importance of having performant tools in place to support this evolution in the most safe and secure way. Hendrik-Jan concludes “Realizing that it has not been an easy task to shape the organisation in the first year after its creation, coinciding with a year full of lockdowns, we should be proud of what we have realized so far in this still very young market.”

Here’s to many more years and many more drones in the airspace!

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