The mother of all petrol bills

By Michael Visontay

Salah Sukkarieh is helping Qantas save on its fuel costs.
Image of Salah Sukkarieh

How much can you save off your annual petrol bill by making sure your car engine is tuned properly? It might be up to four percent a year, according to the US Department of Energy.

Qantas thinks that by applying the same strategy to its aircraft, the saving will be millions of dollars, according to Salah Sukkarieh, Professor of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics.

Qantas has a fuel problem: the cost of jet fuel is eating up their margins. Fuel accounts for 20 to 40 percent of its base costs, so anything they can save on fuel is a bonus for them, especially with rising fuel costs at the moment, says Professor Sukkarieh.

So last year, in a world-first initiative, the company asked the centre to investigate techniques to find fuel efficiencies for their jets.

“Qantas supplied us with an estimate of how much fuel each of their domestic and international craft will use. The estimate is based on figures given to them by the various manufacturers. However, as time goes on, aerodynamic surfaces are tweaked and engine performance deteriorates, all of which affects fuel consumption,” he explains.

“Up till now Qantas has calculated an overall fuel estimate based on the manufacturer’s standards methods. But some jets might need more, some might need less. So they want us to calculate the individual fuel needs for each aircraft based on an analysis of the actual data. No other airline in the world is doing this. It is particularly important for Qantas because they have so many long-haul flights.

“Finding less than one percent efficiency will be a benefit.”

“We are already getting more accurate estimates than Qantas, or the manufacturers, have calculated. Finding less than one percent efficiency will be a benefit; enough to save them a significant amount of fuel each year.

“It’s a bit like driving around in your car with tyres that aren’t inflated properly. One journey won’t make much difference, but over a year, you might save significantly.”

Focusing on fuel efficiency

As part of its wider strategy to address the problem, the airline has also investigated using biofuels. In April a Qantas flight between Sydney and Adelaide used a 50-50 mix of conventional fuel and refined cooking oil, and the federal government has given the airline $500,000 to fund a study into the feasibility of alternative energy fuel.

Originally, Professor Sukkarieh and his team of two research fellows focused their fuel efficiency research on machine-learning techniques: creating mathematical algorithms that trawl through historical data, finding patterns in that data, and using it to calculate fuel consumption in each craft.

But as they drilled down into the numbers, they decided it was better to use the principles of aerodynamics as the cornerstone of their calculations, and then fine-tune their estimates with algorithms. They started with the knowledge that older models are less efficient due to greater maintenance, leading to a greater deviation from their estimated fuel usage.

Among other patterns, they found that the fuel bill for domestic craft is proportionately higher than it is for international craft because domestic jets spend more time taking off and landing. “Cruising at the one speed uses less fuel, so we have more reliable information and estimates for that type of flying than for climb and descent. That’s what we spend most of our time investigating.”

The University team meets weekly with Qantas engineers, who take a close interest in their progress. “The conversation involves much more than a quick catch-up. They have a passion for finding improvements. They see this as a genuine mechanism for saving on costs.

The project has a two-year life. This month Sukkarieh hands over a software system with a form of estimation about fuel usage; the remaining year will be dedicated to improving on the algorithms. By that stage Qantas will have a mechanism that enables savings on their fuel bill. The University of Sydney will retain the intellectual property ownership of the software but Qantas retains the commercial rights. “If another airline comes to us and wants to use it, we would have to ask Qantas. It is an Australian icon … and we like the idea of being able to help it maintain its reputation.”

This project is just one of several that Professor Sukkarieh is working on. Others include robotic research for application in the aerospace, mining and defence industries. There is also the exciting new area of social robotics – machines that interact with humans.
When I ask for more detail, his eyes light up: “How much time have you got?”