How remote inspections are changing the game for aviation fueling

Mike Farmery: So Mark, you've had to really change your game when it comes to dealing with the pandemic. Could you tell us a little bit about what those challenges have been and how you've had to respond to them?

Mark Boyd: We've made some great strides over the last two years as a result of the pandemic. We were forced to innovate and change our approach to make sure that we were still providing assurances to the business, and that our operations were providing clean, dry, on-spec product. 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. It is a human based business and we've relied in the past on individuals visiting locations to provide assurances that our operations are within the industry and business standards. When the pandemic came about, we ran into the travel bans that prevented us from having face-to-face visits at our locations and conducting these inspections. We were challenged with using current technology and leveraging the systems we already have in play to try and continue providing that assurance to the business without skipping a beat.

MF: When you were faced with the challenge of responding to the pandemic and not being able to visit sites, where did you start from? Did you effectively have to start from scratch? Or could you take advantage of existing systems?

MB: When we looked at potentially implementing that into our programme to solve our inspection needs, we looked at what we already had in place, which was the SkyPad. This is an intrinsically safe tablet, which had the ability to have video and audio, and it had a very, very short learning requirement. Operators were already very familiar with it, and it was easy to add the application onto it. It was just taking our existing equipment and tweaking the programmes that were already in place to bring them together, to make a fit-for-purpose solution for our inspection programme. So I think one of the greatest learnings that we've brought from this is to be able to look outside of the box and to leverage the technologies and the systems we already have in play as a business to help support our growth moving forward.

MF: I can see that this was a way of responding to the problems of the pandemic. But do you see it as having the potential to be embedded in a routine system? What do you see as the potential there?

MB: I believe that it will be a supplementary tool. I don't ever think that at this point in time with the technology that we have, that we will be able to fully replace a face-to-face inspection. There are too many variables during a face-to-face inspection that give the inspector the information they need to complete a report and to complete an assessment for a location. I liken it to something like a telehealth option. In this day and age, with the pandemic and with the technology we have available to us, 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. And this ability 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 was going to be.

The same thing I think holds true with the virtual inspection programme. 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. And with that said, tele-health is never going to replace a doctor and a doctor's office and a visit to the hospital, but it is a great tool to help us gather more information to ensure that the decisions we make are the right decisions at the right time.

MF: Mark, I think it's true to say probably that remote inspections could be slightly soulless. Have you got any experience of them actually be making a more positive impact than even being there in-person?

MB: I think it's a connection, Mike. Currently with our inspection programmes, with risk-based analysis, we could see locations anywhere from a year apart to two years and maybe even greater, like we're experiencing here in the pandemic. So I think with that in mind, the virtual programmes allow us to keep a little bit more of a regular touch with a location. So while we may be only physically seeing a location every two years, we can still have that virtual engagement with the location at really any interval we choose, because we don't have to worry about flight schedules or travel accommodation. It's very, very simple to ship out a kit or to have one on location, ready to go. And very, very easy to jump on a virtual call to be able to chat back and forth, to be able to see each other, have a discussion and take a look at the operation. We could even, schedule multiple visits, whether it be monthly or quarterly if we want it to. So I think while it will never replace that face-to-face engagement and that relationship building, it'll allow us to build those relationships by communicating more frequently.

On top of that, it allows us to be able to focus smaller inspections on a very specific piece of the operation, as opposed to a full onsite inspection, which may go over the course of two days. But there is a whole umbrella of information that has to be covered in that time, which can be sometimes very difficult to focus on every single topic as closely and as detail-orientated as possible.

MF: I imagine it's hard to look at paper records and things like that with a camera. So do you see the need to automate the records or make them digital records so you can look at them digitally?

MB: Paper records are very difficult to look at in a virtual environment. And we've avoided doing such for the time being, because it is very time consuming and it's very difficult to sit and flip through pages of handwriting in that virtual environment. So one of the benefits that we have in Canada with our maintenance system is a programme that tracks all of our maintenance, our heavy maintenance on the vehicles and compliance inspections. And this allows the inspector to be able to review these records digitally prior to, or after the inspection. But I think there's definitely room for growth beyond that, to incorporate the daily, weekly, and monthly side of the inspections, and the quality-assurance programme, to be able to grow the virtual inspection programme to not only be looking at operational procedures, but also documentation to ensure that everything is in compliance.

MF: Mark, as we know, the aviation industry, as well as being highly technical, is also very conservative. And to try and get everybody to agree that this is a great thing might be quite difficult. I just wonder whether it's easy to convince them of the benefits.

MB: I think that's absolutely a challenge. Like you said, aviation is a highly regulated, highly conservative industry, and change takes time. And we've experienced that time and time again with the industry. So I definitely expect to see the challenge come forward, and I think that's healthy. We're very innovative as a business, but with that said, we've taken the slow approach to things, and that's why I'm very cautious when I say that this is not a replacement. This isn't a replacement for inspectors to show up on location and have discussions and spend multiple days looking at operations. This is a tool in a toolbox to be able to support those operations.

Where I think the industry will be very welcoming of it is that something like a self-assessment is very, very common in our industry, where a document or a checklist is sent to a location and they review that document internally, they answer the questions and send them back to an inspector. The problem with self-assessments is they require the individual filling out the assessment to share the same perspective as the individual conducting the inspection. If we're able to share this technology and this process with the industry, I think they could see the benefits. And I think there really isn't a downside. Because we're not talking about removing the onsite inspection, we're talking about supplementing that with a programme that's going to help make the risk analysis a much cleaner process.

MF: Mark, how has this technology changed the culture of inspections?

MB: It's changed it in terms of how we approach and look at the inspection programme as a whole. So in previous years, we have managed our inspection programmes based on atypical time frequency. Inspections were rated, outcomes were rated, and based on those ratings, a timeframe would be applied for the next inspection. With the use of things like self-assessments and virtual inspections, we've had the ability to shift to a risk-based scenario where we're able to look at multiple different streams of information that are coming from our operations.

So for example, we can send a remote inspection kit or a virtual inspection kit to a location to triage a situation -- whether that's a bunch of pieces of equipment that are malfunctioning, or a change-over in operations – that will allow us to be able to engage with the locations and determine whether or not we need to conduct a face-to-face inspection. So the implementation of a risk-based approach has allowed us to focus our resources where they need to be, and perhaps have a lighter touch at locations that don't necessarily need our attention at the time. So I would say that the biggest change to our inspection programme has been the focus to move from a time-based frequency to a risk-based frequency.

MF: Do you think you can do more with technology in the future?

MB: There's always room to grow, Mike. The important lesson that we've learned over the pandemic is that we need to consistently be looking forward and watching the technology on the horizon. Right now we're using a tablet and a headset. There's definitely the ability to use smaller, less cumbersome pieces of equipment with better connectivity, better definition cameras. There's the ability to use augmented reality where we can help operators conduct their operations, and do their jobs with that additional level of support. Right now, 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. So I definitely think that there are growth opportunities. And we're only scratching the surface right now.

MF: That's fascinating. Mark, what role do you think technology has got in the next phase of growth in aviation?

MB: It’s exciting to think about. As we've mentioned a few times already, the industry, especially below wing in compliance and services, the fueling operations is a very, very paper-based business. We can use things like a virtual inspection programme to be able to collect information and build databases. It allows us to be able to trend and to build our preventative maintenance programmes. So if I think about something like a digital compliance programme where the records are now shifted from a paper-based perspective to a digital platform where everything is stored in the cloud and it's regularly monitored, it will allow us to be able to identify gaps in compliance before the next inspection.

Think about something that's paper-based now, where we do a very simplistic check, like the condition of a bonding cable or the functionality of an interlock system on a truck. Right now, if one of those checks is missed and not written down on a piece of paper, it could go weeks and even months sometimes before the books are reviewed and the papers are audited to see that we've missed a step somewhere. Whereas in a digitally-based technology supported aviation environment, we would be able to identify those things the same day where notifications could be sent out to individuals, to inspectors and auditors, and even be trended back to engineers and maintenance facilities, to understand the condition of our assets, and how their integrity is maintaining throughout the years.

It's just about collecting information. And, as we've learned, 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. So I think that technology, whether it's digital compliance or virtual inspections, is only going to grow and continue to support the industry in its growth.

MF: So what you're saying is that, from your perspective, you believe this is actually going to really improve safety in the industry.

MB: Absolutely, Mike. The closer touch we have with our locations and the more information we have available to us, the more we can understand the trend analysis. If we see that pieces of equipment are routinely failing after a certain amount of hours or there is some sort of trend in terms of their use, we can be better prepared to manage those and to maintain so that we can avoid critical breakdowns. The same goes with any safety-critical equipment on our units. Again, these are very closely monitored to ensure that we can deliver our product safely, and if we are monitoring these digitally in a virtual environment where we have real-time information, we can limit the amount of downtime and the exposure to risk that our operators face every day.

MF: I presume that also means improved reliability, of course. The one thing that customers want is reliable delivery of fuel every time and all the time.

MB: Absolutely. We service the aviation industry, and 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. Everybody wants to be doing what they're supposed to be doing. So the less amount of time we can spend on the ground, the better. 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.

MF: Thank you very much, Mark. It’s exciting times for the aviation fueling industry.

MB: Thanks for having me, Mike.

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