Most aviation fuel providers are heavily engaged in adding automation wherever they can to assist the refueling technicians, the ground crew, in performing their jobs efficiently and safely. But there is no real interest in eliminating the crew and replacing them with self-driving fuel trucks and robotic fueling rigs. Although the technology could likely do the job, or at least be able to do it in a few years, the safety issues are just too important to eliminate human oversight and double checks. In truth, the actual pumping of fuel into the aircraft is just a small part of the job these dedicated crews provide.

When an aircraft arrives and is ready for fueling, the crew is contacted by radio and dispatched to the aircraft with an order for a specific amount of fuel. Crews servicing routine flights know how much fuel is usually required and will question any order that deviates from the standard amount. The discrepancy may be because of anticipated weather patterns or a particularly light or heavy load on the next leg of the flight. The crew chief will talk to the flight engineer to double-check that the order is correct and that the requested amount of fuel can be dispensed.

The first thing the ground crew does when it approaches the aircraft is connect the anti-static device and set up the ubiquitous orange cones that warn ground traffic to stay clear of the refueling area. They then check the aircraft’s fuel panel (as a backup confirmation of the fuel amount needed) and connect the hose.

As the fuel is pumped into the aircraft—which can take as long as 2 hr. depending on the amount of fuel that remained in the tanks on arrival, the size of the aircraft’s tanks and number of miles for the next leg of the trip—the technician monitors the process while hanging onto the “deadman device,” a safety cutoff switch that stops fuel flow if the technician lets go of the device for any reason. As a built-in fail-safe, they must briefly let go of the lever from time to time to assure the safety system that they are still there and paying attention.

When refueling is completed, the technician records the amount of fuel dispensed and other pertinent parameters, prints a receipt and presents it to a flight crew member to check the numbers and sign off on the delivery. This document goes to the office for accounting and billing.

Refueling companies are concentrating on making the job easier, faster and more reliable by installing connected metering devices that will pass pertinent information (not only the amount of fuel dispensed but also temperature, pressure, and more) directly to the service order record, eliminating the need to visually read a meter and write down those facts. Information is presented and entered on a computer tablet where it is immediately available and does not have to be manually typed in after the event.

Sensors and systems eliminate human error (in data capture and recording) and free the crew from having to physically transcribe information in often difficult conditions. The records are more complete, giving engineers and managers more information about fuel use and the refueling process so procedures can be maintained or improved, as needed.

While robots are not part of the plan, at least for now, automation is certainly a priority for refueling companies in the quest to make the process more efficient, safer and more responsive to the needs of their customers, the aircraft operators.