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Satavia's €1.9m European Space Agency project will boost AI in aviation

European Space Agency satellites are becoming more sophisticated. Shown here is the Proba-2, fully operational in its final orbit. Its front side is continuously oriented toward the sun, displaying instruments used for solar observation
European Space Agency satellites are becoming more sophisticated. Shown here is the Proba-2, fully operational in its final orbit. Its front side is continuously oriented toward the sun, displaying instruments used for solar observation

Aerospace intelligence company Satavia has launched a €1.9million European Space Agency (ESA) project to showcase its capability with aerospace partners.

The 18-month aviation demonstration project supported by the UK Space Agency and ESA began earlier this month, with funding provided through ESA’s Business Applications division.

“It offers funding and support to businesses from any sector who intend to use space – satellite navigation, Earth observation, satellite telecommunication, space weather, space technologies – to develop new commercial services,” said an ESA spokesperson. The project funding has been approved by the UK Space Agency and comes from its budget.

Cambridge-based Satavia was highly commended in the AI Company of the Year category at the 2019 Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards.

Its AI capability offers insights to aircraft manufacturers, airline operators and maintenance repair and overhaul organisations to improve maintenance planning by up to 20 per cent, which reduces unplanned maintenance time and aircraft-on-ground – currently costing the industry up to £47b per year.

The company achieves this by combining monitoring data from sensors on an aircraft, which indicate the wear and tear on the engine. By porting the data into its DECISIONX proprietary software platform, Satavia combines best-in-class technology from software engineering and data science, aerospace engineering, and atmospheric science, to improve predictive maintenance; all of this is hosted in the cloud, which provides scalability and security.

“We track aircraft flight by flight, monitoring exposure to airborne contaminants such as dust and air pollution,” CEO Adam Durant told the Cambridge Independent.

“For instance, an engine comes into a hangar, it might have unexpected damage which means an unexpected repair and delays for air travellers. The aircraft could be stuck on the ground for up to two days. So we’re predicting what work an engine needs before it gets to the hangar – and looking at ways to make the aerospace industry cleaner and greener at the same time.”

Satavia’s platform also helps save fuel by optimising engine performance, flying optimal routes around adverse weather or other environmental threats, and making greater use of the data collected by aircraft flight management systems. The ESA project, however, sees the company going up a gear.

Satavia's CEO Adam Durant. Picture: Richard Marsham
Satavia's CEO Adam Durant. Picture: Richard Marsham

Of the £2m funding provided by the ESA Business Applications programme for the project, Arnaud Runge, from ESA, says: “The European Space Agency is looking forward to kicking off this ambitious project, which we expect to bring additional evidence that space technologies and knowledge can contribute to make aviation safer, greener and more effective.”

“It’s a demonstration project,” adds Adam. “We started last Friday, it lasts for 18 months, and we will work with a number of high-profile airlines, maintenance organisations and manufacturers.

“Applying data and technology from atmospheric science involves software engineers, data scientists and machine learning capability, plus engineering and maintenance data, and we’re sitting on top of that.”

DECISIONX uses numerical weather prediction (NWP) modelling and global climate model (GCM) data to create very large 4D datasets on atmospheric contaminants like dust, air pollution and sea salt. These models require satellite Earth Observation (EO) data as input and for validation. Those measurements could ultimately lead to the development of in-flight Satavia technology.

DECISIONX will also utilise EO data collected from European satellites. There are 1,800 functioning satellites currently orbiting Earth.

“We have just completed a multi-year global climatology looking at ice clouds and how these impact aviation,” Adam says.

“We use EO data to create certain cloud products and for model validation. We require aircraft location data as input when we create our aircraft contaminant exposure product so that also involves satellite navigation satellites.

“In the future, we may send data products to the flight deck via telecommunications satellites to support situational awareness for pilots. What we’re demonstrating today is an enabler, but yes, it will eventually be predicting weather and making aviation safer.

“The immediate focus is to support maintenance schedules while later we will get the maintenance cost impact into flight planning.”

The Satavia team at Castle Park..Picture: Richard Marsham
The Satavia team at Castle Park..Picture: Richard Marsham

Satavia has helped airlines, engine makers and maintenance teams streamline operations.

The actionable insights the company provides saves clients a lot of money: business jet operators experience 180,000 flights delayed each year due to weather alone, costing an estimated $340m.

Aircraft-on-ground delays caused by unplanned maintenance are costing commercial aviation around £23bn each year.

Think back to May 2010 – the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, grounding European aviation for a week and costing the global economy £3.9bn.

Recently Rolls-Royce announced costs of £2.4bn, in part due to unscheduled maintenance issues caused by air pollution damaging engines on the Boeing Dreamliner. This is just one example – everyone in the industry has the same problems.

Aviation also needs to become greener and more sustainable, which can be achieved in part by becoming more efficient. That means collecting and making use of aerospace data.

The drivers of growth are next-generation aircraft coming into service and the huge volumes of data that will be generated. There are nearly 30,000 commercial aircraft today and 30 per cent of the fleet are next-generation aircraft generating two million terabytes of data each year; this will rise to nearly 40,000 aircraft generating 98 million terabytes by 2029.

Satavia’s solution is to make all unplanned maintenance into planned maintenance through enhanced decision-making by connecting data and systems across aviation.

The platform tracks how the environment causes damage to a single aircraft or an entire fleet over any route network.

There is huge potential. The global maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) market reached £61.8bn in 2019 and is predicted to grow by four per cent each year to 2029.

Predictive maintenance solutions are growing fastest in the MRO software segment, at 25 per cent each year.

The fastest-growing digital segments in aviation are artificial intelligence and predictive analytics solutions, which could save more than £2.3bn each year.

Meanwhile, the company has moved across the city, from Eagle Labs to Castle Park, as the staff count increased.

“We have 11 full time and seven part-time employees and will shortly be increasing numbers further,” Adam notes.

Next up will be the closing of an investment round.

Hanadi Jabado is chairman of Satavia
Hanadi Jabado is chairman of Satavia

“We’re still very much in a phase of trying to innovate in an industry full of incumbents,” Adam adds. “It’s highly regulated and not easy to disrupt but we’re doing well and getting known across the industry, so that helps.”

Satavia chairman Hanadi Jabado said: “Satavia has embraced its mission to disrupt the world of aviatech and to be the pioneers in environmental data science.

“This contract with the ESA is evidence of their market-leading position and a platform to build on for the next stage of growth.”

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