UK Software Startup Helping Pilots Fly More Efficiently

 - August 18, 2022, 4:29 PM
The Signol app gives pilots individual feedback on their operational tendencies to encourage them to reduce fuel usage. (Photo: Signol)

UK software developer Signol has saved Virgin Atlantic Airways some 1,000 tonnes of fuel over a six-month period with the help of a proprietary app designed to “nudge” airline captains into flying more efficiently, according to the London-based startup. The behavioral economics and data science app—adopted by Virgin Atlantic last December—gives pilots individual feedback on their operational tendencies to encourage them to reduce fuel usage while complying with fuel management and flight safety standards.

A three-year deal between Virgin Atlantic and Signol follows the success of an initial pilot study in which pilots reduced CO2 emissions by 24,000 tonnes over an eight-month period, resulting in $6.1 million in savings.

Today, about 200 pilots, or approximately two-thirds of Virgin Atlantic captains, voluntarily participate in the program, Signol chief commercial officer Gavin Laidlaw told AIN. Signol has been in business for five years and has already built a substantial customer base in the shipping industry. It expects what Laidlaw described as a large European holiday package flight operator to “go live” by the end of the year.

Laidlaw explained that the company’s offering includes not only the app but, perhaps just as importantly, outbound email communication with users to help them recognize areas in which they can improve.

“So we are like a post-flight debriefing and reflection tool, which means that when [the pilots] go up next time, they're more likely to actually carry out a fuel economy maneuver…We’re priming them essentially,” he said.

Using data collected from the airplane’s flight data recorder, the app addresses several operational behaviors, perhaps the most fuel-burn intensive involving landing and takeoff. For example, Laidlaw noted that pilots often use thrust reversers more often than necessary at airports with long runways. Taxiing on one engine also saves a significant amount of fuel, but pilots simply don’t always adhere to the practice. While in-flight savings might seem less significant due to the precision with which pilots typically fly their planned routes, the simple act of using the most fuel-efficient flap settings on approach can make a big difference, he explained.

Prior to takeoff, the amount of discretionary fuel a captain chooses to carry often varies with his or her comfort level and risk tolerance. Of course, taking on less fuel results in less weight and, therefore, better fuel economy. The app will show, for example, how much unnecessary fuel—after reserves for potential diversions—a user took onboard for each flight; it then can calculate how much savings he or she might have realized by loading less.

“The idea is that if you load it, you use it,” said Laidlaw. “When we looked at dispatcher decisions, it's only used 2 percent of the time. And when it is used, only 20 percent of it is used. So there's a huge amount of waste because every kilogram of fuel you carry on a plane you’re burning 0.19 kg to carry the extra weight.”

Using the app, pilots can view their performance data from each individual flight and access their historical records. The app then calculates and illustrates the environmental benefits of a particular pilot’s flying behavior. “So as flights get loaded up in the data, they can see how they're doing and they can also see how much carbon they're saving in a relatable way…like you've saved 10,000 trees, that kind of thing,” Laidlaw explained.

Still, Laidlaw conceded that safety must take priority over any cost consideration, regardless of how much the resulting fuel savings translate into wider environmental benefits.

“We recognize that fuel decisions are safety decisions and therefore we've very much emphasized the decision-making autonomy of the pilot,” said Laidlaw. “And we respect that. So we'll never ask them to do something unsafe, but we do obviously look to see how we can improve their performance by executing behaviors more frequently.”

Meanwhile, Signol took care to understand the psychology and personality traits of the people who would use the service.

“One of the key things that's nice about Signol is we don't tell you what to do,” he added. “Captains value their independence and freedom of action and telling them what to do gets resented. So nudging them is a much more gentle and friendly way of doing it.”

Of course, the more pilots that participate, the larger sampling of data that gets processed, and the more evident the benefits become to the airline. Not only does the app create profiles and custom targets for individual pilots, it displays fleet-level behavioral analytics for management. Laidlaw stressed, however, that the associated reports do not identify individuals in the interest of privacy, a particularly sensitive subject among pilot unions in North America.

Although European airlines have shown perhaps the most immediate interest in the offering, Signol has entered advanced talks with carriers worldwide, including a few big airlines in the U.S. and one in Canada. Laidlaw wouldn’t specify the precise pricing structure it negotiated with Virgin Atlantic, but he explained that it guarantees that the customer gleans at least 90 percent of the cost-saving benefit realized through the use of the product.

“I think it’s fair to say that it’s probably the best [return on investment] of any project they do,” said Laidlaw. “We charge a service fee, either per pilot or per airframe, and that would get up to somewhere in the region of between 5 and 10 percent of what we saved them in fuel.”