The most advanced aviation fuel-handling facilities—tank farms near the source (wells/refinery), pipelines and transfer points along the delivery route, right up to the tanks and storage facilities at airports—are highly automated and digitalized. Sensors keep a constant eye on fuel levels, temperature, pressure and other parameters throughout the network. Valves and controls are electronically controlled, managed by the central computer systems that ensure safe, effective fuel handling, while freeing personnel from having to work in dangerous areas, increasing safety and speeding up work.

This is all part of the move toward digitalizing the fuel supply chain being actively pursued by leading fuel suppliers to speed up the process, reduce cost, and improve safety.

Near the end of this long chain, however, the final links remain human worker-dependent. At the airfield, the fuel is either pumped to an outlet port near the aircraft parking area or loaded onto refueling vehicles (tank trucks) that transport the fuel to the awaiting carrier. The actual delivery of the fuel into the aircraft’s tanks is the final link and one that is unlikely to be fully automated in the foreseeable future, although automation is making the task safer and more efficient.

At the next-to-last link, in those locations where a refueling tank truck is involved, pilot projects are showing how robotics can make operations safer and more efficient. Special docking equipment, as well as a unique computer vision system and reliable control algorithms guide the robotic fuel hose and nozzle to mate with the tank truck fill port, allowing the process of refueling airfield tankers to be fully automated. Human workers and technicians can be kept at a safe distance as the refilling operation is controlled and monitored from an online central control point. Supported by predictive analysis, this automated control helps eliminate any potential deviations from the norm before they occur, ensuring optimum safety and efficiency.

As this is a pilot project, robotic tanker refilling is not likely to be seen at an airfield near you in the immediate future. The trial project is dedicated to proving the technology; large-scale rollout will inevitably follow after it is complete and the companies involved achieve integration of the new robotic fuel-handling systems into the wider automated process control systems that manage the rest of the tank farm and pipeline fuel supply chain.

Digital technologies and robotics are not just for jet fuel, of course. Major petroleum products companies deal in a number of different supply chains including home heating oil, automotive fuel, industrial chemicals and solvents and more. The move toward highly efficient and safe digital technologies is proceeding on all fronts as petroleum companies continually strive to improve customer service, increase efficiency, and add more safeguards to the handling of volatile fuels and products.