A conversation with Rob Midgley
Recently, our Flightpath host, Mike Farmery, sat down with Rob Midgley, Shell Aviation’s Global Technical and Quality Manager for Aviation Fuels, to discuss how technology and innovation is affecting aviation fuel operations.
This excerpt from their Q&A examines the role of digital technology in enabling remote inspections and driving greater efficiency, how technology is influencing industry standards, and product quality. Keep reading for a first-hand account of their informative sit-down. Please note this transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
ACCELERATING TECHNOLOGY INNOVATION IN AVIATION FUELING
Mike Farmery: What do you think is the relationship between technology and fuel in aviation?
Rob Midgley: Fuel is an interesting aspect of aviation. When you design and build aircraft, then things that are safety-critical are either duplicated or they're designed to fail to safe. Fuel is one of the few items that I can think of in a whole aircraft system that neither fails to safe or is duplicated. So, we need to make sure that the fuel is right every time when we put it onto an aircraft, because it's a safety critical item.
So lots of effort goes into making sure that the fuel that we manufacture at refineries is the fuel that is delivered to aircraft and that the two are connected without contamination. Technology traditionally has come into that space to make sure that we are supplying fuel which is fit-for-purpose. We do a lot of active management behind the scenes to make sure that the people who board the aircraft never think twice about the quality of the fuel on the aircraft. And the industry has been very successful with that over the years.
That said, I think there's room to improve within that technology space. We've been doing a lot on the airport interface with our customers recently. We've developed SkyPad, which then electronically communicates back to the customer on fuel uplifts. As soon as you have interfaces like that, we can do more with it. And we can do more with sensors as well. Looking to the future, I think we can see more potential, not just on the airport operations, but also within the fuel itself.
But to take you back to the airport operations, there's a potential to take movement sensors on vehicles that helps us improve vehicle safety. We can see how quickly it's moving, where the danger spots might be in its journey, and tight turns and such. We can then look at vehicle utilisation that reduces CO2 footprint and make sure that we're fit-for-purpose on the airport footprint, reducing costs to supply. It also allows us to then monitor how much vehicles are being used and we can start to use that in a predictive maintenance program. So, just by putting simple sensors onto things, we can start to improve operations.
MF: A lot of people think of jet fuel as just a commodity. How do you see technology helping to give that reassurance that we've got good quality fuel all the time, anywhere in the world?
RM: Shell's got a long legacy within aviation fuels. Our history goes back to 1909, the first point that we can identify that we put fuel on aircraft, which is [Louis] Bleriot's flight across the English Channel. We were really pivotal in defining what is aviation fuel. So, there's lots of touch points within there where technology has fundamentally driven the industry and the products that are used within the industry, and allows us to then have a commodity which is safely used. So, whilst the product itself is commoditised in many ways, it is also a special product and it needs technology insights and technology development to be able to make sure that that fuel is fit-for-purpose.
We measure certain properties of the fuel, which imply performance, energy density, freeze point, those sorts of things. What we can do now is as technology improves, we can start to look in much more detail at the composition of the fuel. We're really at the cusp now of being able to say whether a fuel is fit-for-purpose based on its composition, not just its performance properties. And that opens up a whole new space for us within aviation fuels because it allows us to then move into a place where we do product-quality management in a different way.
Instead of just doing lab tests and measuring certain performance properties and having inference about the product itself, we can go and directly measure the product. We can measure its composition. So we can make much better product-quality decisions, make things flow through the supply chain more quickly. And we can also then downgrade less fuel because we got better information about it. And we can make sure that we're supplying genuinely fit-for-purpose fuel at the point of uplift.
MF: Could you also use that technology to help develop new fuels, some of the sustainable fuels we're looking for? If you can use the ability to measure composition, can you predict how those fuels will behave in aircraft?
RM: Indeed. We have a good understanding within Shell about blending rules between different products. We know if we mix two components together, we can predict the performance properties so we can have control of the blending process. That's at a very simplistic level. On a more complex level, if we understand the composition of the fuels in a detailed level, then we can put that information within the specification group and make more reasoned decisions about whether a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) or any alternative synthetic component is permitted for use within the jet-fuel specification.
There's lots of work going in that space, where we're learning from the previous synthetic fuels that we've approved. But we can potentially accelerate that process by injecting into that an insight into the composition as well. What it allows us to do is to approve more rapidly some of those alternative blend components, and that has the potential to bring more SAF into the aviation fuel world more quickly and it also allows us to signal to people who are making SAF components what an appropriate compositional profile might be, therefore attracting more players into that space.
I also think there's a potential here for not just looking at SAF, but also how do we improve the efficiency of what we operate on with conventional fuel as well. For some time, we're going to have to operate with conventional fuels as we start to build the capacity to deliver sustainable aviation fuels. So, one of the things that I'm interested in trying to explore is how do we improve the efficiency of conventionals. It plays into that lower-carbon space.
MF: Rob, one of the consequences of the pandemic has been that the normal procedure for doing inspections at airports has been impossible. What have you had to do to try and assure yourselves that what's going on at airports is still meeting your standards?
RM: It's a real challenge to make sure that the compliance program, from anybody's point of view, is functioning or fit-for-purpose during the pandemic process. The traditional model of inspections and compliance is to send an inspector to site periodically to inspect the facilities and to oversee what's happening at the location. And of course, with COVID restrictions, we've not been able to do that. We can't put people on site.
We've recognized that and we've implemented some additional functions around that inspection process by having cameras involved. In the initial stages, that's been handheld devices. We can watch activities on site, as well as look at the documentation remotely. Where we're working into next is can that be made simpler? Can we make them wearable devices, for example, on glasses? The next thing that goes from there is do we then implement this after the pandemic, because lots of people are seeing the pandemic as a survival mode.
One of the things that I think we should be able to do is to then look at clues from airports and risk-manage them. One of the things that we do at the moment is we apply the same rule to every airport. We inspect at the same frequency with the same type of checklist and the same type of activity. So, why shouldn't we apply the activity and the expertise to those that need more support and accept that those that are in control don't need quite that same level of support?
That potentially comes from digital inspections, rather than remote inspections. What I mean by that is, can we [digitally] capture the data that we currently capture on paper? Can we capture that electronically and see that remotely? That gives us a few advantages. One is that the airport site manager can see the activities day-by-day on real-time basis, so see what he's doing well and what his site is not achieving, and then put a remedial action plan in place early. It also allows the inspection profile to then be seen remotely.
And so, the process stops being one of the inspector going and trying to find faults. It becomes a process that we're sending inspectors and expertise to the site to support and improve performance of the site. It’s a positive feedback rather than a negative feedback.
MF: I can imagine that will make the industry much more efficient, because it can measure things without having lots of people around having to sample and all the things we do nowadays.
RM: I think one of the advantages of that is exactly that we can start to do things more efficiently. We do things because we need to do it rather than because we're always doing it. And so, by doing that, we focus our efforts on the things that need more attention. So, instead of being distracted, or being obliged to do things that because we've always done it this way before, we can then start to say, within a system, where are the weaknesses, and we apply our efforts to those weaknesses and we apply fit-for-purpose activities to other things.
And there might be things that we're not doing now that we could be doing more of. One example might be that we don't monitor the failure rate of equipment. If we can put sensors on, say, pumps or valves, we can acoustically see if valves are leaking. We can detect whether they're working or not. And then apply a regime of maintenance based on failure rates. We can predict performance and we can apply activity based on that performance. So we've become altogether more efficient in achieving the outcome, which is delivering clean, dry, on-spec fuel. By challenging the systems in which we work and the standards in which we work, to achieve the outcome that we want, we can start to imagine how technology might come into that space to make the outcome achievable by using different processes and means.
MF: Rob, you've talked a bit about all the problems associated with managing things through the pandemic. I bet you're looking forward to it all being over and you can get back to normal.
RM: I think we are all looking forward to getting back to a normal operation. But I think there are things that we've done within the pandemic that we can extend, we can learn from the process and extend it. Let’s take the inspections as an example of that. We've learned that we can start to do some of that activity remotely. The point of the inspection is to improve the quality of the site, to make sure it's functional and meeting the standards. So instead of putting people in expertise on the ground to find the gaps, we'd be more efficient putting that expertise on the ground to try and support the site to improve.
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