Many are familiar with aviation fuel, but technological innovation is not the first thing that comes to mind. While aviation fuel is a global commodity, with 360 billion litres, digital technology is remaking the industry and delivering fuel safely and efficiently, according to Rob Midgley, Global Technical and Quality Manager of Shell Aviation.

How technology is making the aviation fuel industry more efficient

When you hear the words “aviation fuel”, technological innovation might not be the first thing that leaps to mind. After all, it’s just one of countless global commodities, with 360 billion litres of the stuff circulating around global markets every year.

But just like how digital technology is remaking every other facet of life, from education to entertainment, it also promises major improvements in how energy is delivered safely and efficiently to the aircraft that help keep the global economy aloft, said Rob Midgley, Global Technical and Quality Manager of Shell Aviation.

“Fuel is one of the few items that I can think of in a whole aircraft system that neither fails to safe nor 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,” Midgley said in an interview with aviation fueling expert Mike Farmery.

“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,” Midgley said.

For example, powerful new digital sensors can give fuel operators the ability to perform rapid and highly accurate compositional profiling of fuel, monitor and track vehicles and key parts, or detect water in fuel down to one part per million. That’s like scanning the entire population of London and detecting nine specific people.

The result, Midgley said, is that airlines can spend more time flying while improving quality and safety.

Changing the culture of inspections

Digital technology played a crucial role in allowing Shell customers to continue operating even during the most difficult days of the pandemic, when lockdown restrictions prevented many routine operations like in-person inspections, Midgley said.

By using a tablet with a built-in camera and secure meeting software, on-site operators could work virtually with remote Shell experts to inspect equipment and review procedures, he said.

“What we're working on next is how to make that even simpler. Can we use wearable devices like glasses, for example?” Midgley said.

There’s also a big opportunity to digitise many paper-based processes, which has the potential to lead to a sea-change in how inspections are ultimately conducted, he said.

“Can we [digitally] capture all the activity at an airport that happens day-to-day, which the inspectors are only going to look at on a sheet of paper once a year?” Midgley said. “Doing that would give us a few advantages. One is that the airport site manager could see the activities day-by-day on a real-time basis, see what is going well and what the site is not achieving, and then put a remedial action plan in place early.”

“The process stops being one of the inspector going and trying to find faults. It becomes a process of sending inspectors and expertise to the site to support and improve performance of the site. It's positive feedback rather than negative feedback. We're focusing on the outcome of what we're trying to achieve, rather than the process,” Midgley said.

Solving problems and redefining standards

Technology is also helping solve other pressing issues, such as phasing out the use of superabsorbent polymers (SAP) from fuel filters over the next two years due to safety concerns.

“Engine manufacturers have been clear that their tolerance for superabsorbent polymer is zero. So, we cannot afford to have an incident where any superabsorbent polymer goes on to aircraft. And the only way of achieving that is to eliminate it,” Midgley said.

Rather than using a substance like SAP that physically filters out water during fueling, new solutions including Shell Jet Protection use an electronic sensor to continuously monitor the flow of fueling, shutting it down if water is detected.

Eventually, technology may spark a rethink in how certain industry standards are defined, Midgley said.

For example, current fuel-handling standards say that a tank of fuel must sit for three hours per metre of depth to allow sediment and water to settle. Using sensors to monitor the fuel could fundamentally change that process, Midgley said.

“When we apply technology to that, what we can do is to ask what is the outcome that we want, which is clean, dry fuel. So, instead of needing to have a tank settle for a certain period, we're then measuring whether the fuel is clean and dry. And if the fuel is clean and dry going in, you may not need to settle at all,” Midgley said.

“So all of a sudden, we start to have a much more fit-for-purpose standard by looking at the outcome rather than the activity. Typically, what we have within the standards is an activity-driven process. And what I'd like to see us moving towards is an outcome-driven process, and that will start to make us much more efficient.”

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.

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