How sensors, cameras, and data can fuel the next wave of innovation in aviation
The aviation sector is eager to return to the skies after more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic. As airlines grapple with enormous uncertainty about the way forward, they also have the chance to embrace new opportunities that could make the industry more efficient and sustainable. Rob Midgley, Shell Aviation’s Global Technical and Quality Manager for Aviation Fuels, shared his thoughts on these topics and more.
As the aviation sector looks to recover from the pandemic, what are the priorities from an operational and efficiency perspective?
Understandably, the whole industry is still experiencing a great deal of uncertainty and the return to “regular” operations varies greatly by region. What’s more, we are seeing different patterns emerge, shaped by local public health conditions and policies. For example, low-cost regional carriers are returning to pre-pandemic volume while long-haul is not there yet.
The number one priority is making sure airlines and airports are ready to safely return to flying. We must ensure that people feel prepared and confident in resuming day-to-day operations, especially because they look different today than before the pandemic. Specifically, near-term, because when airports and aircraft have been underutilised for so long, we must make sure fuel is tested and up to standard. Longer-term, because of the impact of the pandemic and the increasing need to decarbonise, airlines are under tremendous pressure to streamline and optimise their business.
You have been a leading voice in helping airlines recognise and combat microbial contamination. How has the industry done so far and what is the outlook as more planes resume normal operation?
When it comes to airline safety, people tend to think about the aircraft or the engines. Fuel is one of the few single points of failure on an aircraft. One critical risk factor to address is microbial contamination, as the industry has not yet standardised testing protocols and questions remain about the best way to deploy biocides. We put in a lot of work behind the scenes to make sure that no one needs to worry about fuel and we are prepared to support the industry in tackling the issue of microbial contamination. Advances in technology have improved our ability to safely and efficiently supply airlines with fuel, and we see great opportunity for adopting even more technology for the benefit of our customers and their customers.
Another issue you have vocally led on is the use of SAP-free fuel filters. How has the industry progressed in recognising this problem and moving to solve it?
Airframe and engine manufacturers want to drive towards a solution and the Joint Inspection Group (JIG) has notified the withdrawal of filter monitors from their standards by July 2023 through the issuing of their JIG Bulletin 132. The industry is in a state of transition, and we are close to being free of super-absorbent polymers (SAP). But, in general the industry is not on track to implement the solution. At some point, airlines will realise that they need to embrace a solution – whether Shell Jet Protection or another kind of filter. An apparent lack of incidents does not mean it’s not an issue anymore, it just means the incidents are not being tracked and collated since the IATA SAP Special Interest Group disbanded in November 2017. Moreover, the solutions are not simple or quick to implement, so the time to act is now. Airlines should align on a transition program to get the industry to move in concert.
The pandemic prevented traditional onsite fuel inspections in many locations, but the industry responded with agility and innovation by adopting remote inspections. What have we learned from that and what is the value in continuing that approach even after the pandemic has receded?
The COVID crisis taught us how technology can advance our industry. We can incorporate technology and tools that enable us to be more accurate and, in some cases, predictive. One example is using advances in connectivity and camera technology alongside real-time data and analysis to enable accurate and sophisticated remote inspections.
Embracing this technology as a starting point for something new, rather than a stop-gap solution, has the potential to paradigm-shift the role that inspections play in ensuring safety. Traditional inspections have always been about finding faults rather than fixing problems. If we can capture more of the on-site maintenance and assurance activity digitally to identify issues remotely in real-time, then site visits become more about support and problem-solving. Remote and digital inspections can also allow for tailored oversight based on each site’s unique risk profile. We could also share this data and information with the airlines to improve collaboration, create confidence, and give them real-time information about compliance. This will give us better, safer outcomes than today and help us optimise supply chains to ensure fuel supply is not only reliable but also cost-effective.
Give us your assessment of how the aviation industry has embraced technology and digital transformation. What are the opportunities and challenges you see?
We are a very conservative industry, and rightly so. But given the pressure the industry is under from an operations and efficiency perspective, we have enormous potential to incorporate technology that maximises existing infrastructure. We are on the cusp of a major digital transformation. We are already investigating things such as adopting tools for product-quality management, understanding normal fuel’s compositional envelope to make better product-quality decisions, and using sensors to determine when fuel and storage tanks are clean and fit for use. Sensors come in many forms and offer the potential for us to optimise to a degree not possible before. Through their use we can know when our vehicles are moving and how often they are used. We can know how often certain equipment fails so we can base inspections on data rather than an arbitrary timeline. The disruption caused by the pandemic offers the perfect opportunity for a fresh approach and to invest in technologies that will usher in a sea-change for the industry.
Superabsorbent Polymer (SAP) is a key component in filter monitors that are in standard use across the industry to ensure fuel quality while refuelling aircraft. However, given the accumulated evidence against SAP, the industry recognises the need for new options. At a time when the industry's margin for risk is smaller than ever, is your airline doing enough to mitigate the hidden threats associated with Superabsorbent Polymer (SAP)?
In response to COVID-19, unprecedented numbers of passenger aircraft have been grounded with fuel left standing in aircraft wing tanks. For many airlines, this creates the unfamiliar need to proactively monitor and manage the risk of microbial contamination. Shell expert, Robert Midgley, Global Technical and Quality Manager highlights the problem and response to microbe contamination which, if left unchecked, can lead to defuelling and clean-up, or worse, airframe corrosion and blocked fuel systems.
Recently, our Flightpath host, Joel Makower, sat down with Annie Petsonk, International Counsel at the Environmental Defense Fund, to discuss how the industry’s course to recovery must also track toward a more sustainable future. Read about their Q&A about the role of sustainable aviation fuels and why the industry must work together to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
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