Digital technology can replace current paper-based systems to collect data, build databases, and analyze trends. For example, an operator might find that certain equipment routinely fails after a particular number of hours, then draw up a preventative maintenance plan to help avoid critical breakdowns, Boyd said.

Remote and digital aviation fuel inspections, necessitated by the pandemic, have the potential to make the industry more efficient even after the health crisis has receded by giving operators another tool to augment traditional in-person visits, according to a Shell Aviation expert.

“The aviation industry, especially the fuel-services side of things and the below-the-wing services, have been primarily paper-based and a very face-to-face operation,” said Mark Boyd, Compliance Manager for the Americas at Shell Aviation.

But the pandemic – and the travel restrictions that followed – brought those on-site inspections and assessments to a grinding halt.

The experts at Shell made a rapid pivot to virtual inspections by using existing technology and systems such as the SkyPad tablet that connects operators and personnel on the apron, Boyd said in an interview with aviation fueling consultant Mike Farmery.

“This is an intrinsically safe tablet, which had the ability to have video and audio, and it had a very, very short learning requirement,” said Boyd. “Operators were already very familiar with it, and it was easy to add the application on to it. It was just taking our existing equipment and tweaking the programmes that were already in place to bring them together.”

Another tool in the toolbox

Although virtual inspections won’t replace in-person touchpoints, they are emerging as an important supplementary tool for Shell customers, Boyd said.

“I liken it to something like a telehealth option,” said Boyd. “We have the ability to go on our smartphones or our home computers and consult with a doctor or a registered nurse before going to the hospital. This allows us to speak with somebody about the issues that we're dealing with. And then we can make a decision based on that information as to what our next step is going to be.”

The same holds true with virtual inspections.

“It’s an ability for us to send a piece of equipment to a remote location, to troubleshoot issues, or to get an initial look at the operation to determine risk levels and what our challenges are on location, and then determine the best course of action for resources moving forward,” said Boyd.

New technology such as mixed or augmented reality could make things even more efficient, Boyd said.

“Right now we’re using a tablet and a headset,” said Boyd. “It’s almost like a film crew. We have one person holding the tablet, showing the environment with an operator on camera that’s conducting all the tasks or doing all the work. With advances in technology, we could look at using a single piece of equipment, not unlike a body cam or a set of glasses, that could be placed on the operator directly.”

Identifying additional efficiencies with data

According to Boyd, the most significant promise of digital and cloud technology will be a shift from time-based inspections to risk-based ones.

“In previous years, we have managed our inspection programmes based on a typical time frequency. Inspections were rated, outcomes were rated, and based on those ratings, a timeframe would be applied for the next inspection,” said Boyd.

But virtual inspections give the ability to shift to a risk-based scenario. This is because experts are able to look at multiple different streams of real-time information to help them focus resources on locations that need more support while giving a lighter touch to those that don’t need as much attention, Boyd said.

Digital technology can replace current paper-based systems to collect data, build databases, and analyze trends. For example, an operator might find that certain equipment routinely fails after a particular number of hours, then draw up a preventative maintenance plan to help avoid critical breakdowns, Boyd said.

“It’s just about collecting information,” said Boyd. “The more information we can have, the better off we are in terms of our path forward and setting our goals and knowing where we need to focus our resources.”

Ultimately, it’s about making aviation even safer and more efficient, Boyd said.

“We know that time on the ground is money lost. The more time flying, everybody's happy, whether that's the passengers, the customers, or the flight crew,” Boyd said. “The more reliable our fueling and service equipment is, and the more prepared they are to deliver to our customer's demands, the better off we're set to ensure that we're keeping our customers in the air where they want to be.”

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