Cleantech Disruptors — An Interview with Satavia’s CEO, Adam Durant and CSO, Nick Bray
Cleantech Disruptors is a series of interviews showcasing innovative cleantech startups, who through the development of disruptive technologies are changing the future.
SATAVIA is a data analytics and AI company based in Cambridge UK helping the aviation industry to make flying cheaper, smarter and greener.
I chatted firstly to Adam Durant, CEO and then to Nick Bray, CSO about SATAVIA’s decision intelligence technology — DECISIONX. It is the only solution delivering actionable insight in the aviation marketplace which can combine and validate multiple environmental, weather, aircraft and maintenance datasets. DECISIONX can analyse years of historic operational data for entire fleets in hours to deliver enhanced insight into fleet asset condition.
Adam, how did it all begin?
We started off focusing on making maintenance better and are now moving towards helping to optimise aircraft performance. We do this through applying native AI machine learning to data from engines and aircraft combined with tracking data that takes into consideration damage to the aircraft through things like dust and air pollution, and volcanic eruptions which cause the engine to degrade faster. We help to bring perspective into predictive maintenance and condition monitoring with the aim of saving a small amount on maintenance and cost of ownership.
However, through Covid we have been exploring some pivots and post Covid more than ever our focus will be on how we help aviation become greener and more sustainable.
How will you do this?
We focused on how to make engines more efficient, so they burn less fuel through enhanced maintenance. The result being that we can help airlines reduce their fuel burn by 0.5–1 percent, for which we will partner with a major Middle East airline on a POC.
We are now starting to develop a new product line around carbon emissions monitoring, reporting and verification, which builds on our expertise around working with engine data, tracking aircraft and data science to do bottom up emissions accounting for every single flight in a highly granular way. This will support the industry transition to Net Zero carbon aviation fuels which will come online in the UK in the next 5 years. The manufacturers will also start developing the next generation of carbon neutral aviation, when the hardware itself will get replaced, helping to solve some of the immediate issues around how aviation is impacting climate change.
In the UK we travel a lot and about 10% of our carbon emissions in the UK are from aviation, so with our one product which gets us half a percent to a percent we can actually solve .1 percent of the UK’s carbon emissions problem.
What was the inspiration for the business?
It was all the result of an Icelandic volcanic eruption in 2010.
I was working at Cambridge as an Atmospheric Scientist and had just started a new job focusing on measuring carbon in the atmosphere. I had just left volcanology and 2 weeks later, there was a volcanic ash eruption which entirely grounded European aviation! At that point I got involved in a spinout company in Norway and started working with EasyJet and Airbus and ended up moving to Norway. Here, I found the inspiration for founding my own company looking at how the atmospheric environment and natural hazards like volcanoes and dust storms or air pollution might affect maintenance and flight operations, which built upon what I was doing before whilst working in Bristol and Cambridge on climate change research.
It is essential that sustainability remains at the top of the aviation agenda. We must rebuild the industry in a sustainable way, not just by retiring old aircraft immediately, but by focusing on newer more efficient technologies which can transform the industry.
What is slowing down innovation in aviation?
We’ve been ready to innovate for 5 years! The nature of the industry which has lots of incumbents, and a high level of risk aversion, means it’s hard to convince people to change. It isn’t very digitally savvy — remarkably there is still a lot of data on paper! This lack of accessible, joined up data makes it difficult to apply data science to the industry to solve problems, but as this changes we can have a greater impact on all aspects of the industry.
Please can you share some of your successes?
First, the results: we have been working closely with 2 large engine OEMs — Rolls Royce and Safran for the last 4 years and are starting to see evidence of how we’re helping to solve their problems.
Second, we’ve been awarded some amazing grants to help with our research and development. We are close to £4 million in grant funding and also closed our first investment round of a £1 million in January.
Lastly, would be The Aviation X Lab — https://www.theaviationxlab.com/ which is headed by Emirates with the backing of some amazing firms. The focus is on creating the next moonshot aviation focused start-up, and to even be considered you have to positively impact a billion plus people and solve some very big problems!
Let’s talk about the green vision.
We will make significant reductions in aviation emissions which will enable people to travel greener. It is our duty as citizens to try to move towards a carbon neutral future.
So, we have discussed before the ‘Plan B’ — can you share a bit more about what you can achieve in defence?
Our Plan B is actually fairly similar but applied to defence — military transport aircraft and any other flying vehicles — helping to reduce the carbon footprint of defence is very important too, but I will leave it to Nick to tell you move about it…
Nick, so what was it about SATAVIA that made you want to get involve?
The concept and the vision; we digitise the atmosphere using our core tech and can use this to determine the impact of volcanic ash, dust and sea salt etc on aircraft and contrails and CO2 etc on the environment. We can use this information to support the industry in its journey to reach net zero. All of the areas Adam mentioned are the reasons I was so interested in being a part of SATAVIA. Also, I love the story of the start — it was like some sort of adventure movie with governments desperately pulling together teams of experts to rush off to figure out what to do when a massive Icelandic volcano erupted and half the planet’s aviation was grounded!
So how did it all happen?
I was Commandant General of the RAF Regiment and Air Officer Force Protection before becoming Head of the Ministry of Defence’s International Policy and Planning and Defence Engagement capability.. Following this I was part of many exciting initiatives, one of which was leading a unique organisation that provides innovative thinking, business development and strategy for the most senior levels of the Royal Air Force. During this time, I ran into Adam, and SATAVIA . I could see an obvious fit with my background and interests and there seemed to be a logical path for me to support them with both defence and strategy.
How does this fit in with the rest of the SATAVIA business?
Before Covid we had made the decision to start getting into defence. Basically because military aviation needs to save fuel, do smarter and cheaper maintenance and manage CO2 emissions in the same way as civil aviation needs these capabilities. a The military also want to keep its jets in the air as much as possible, something which SATAVIA can help with! And actually, whilst the aviation industry is on its knees, defence has hardly missed a beat — if anything they are moving people around more.
The military often have small numbers of extremely high-tech aircraft which they want to keep in the air for as long as possible. They also need good value for money and to extend their lifespan wherever they can. A great example is the Poseidon P8. The first couple have just been delivered to the UK but will become part of a fleet of 8 very specialist aircraft. Several other nations also use this aircraft, so the market is pretty large — as are the potential savings that SATAVIA can offer.
In which other ways can you use the huge volume of data you collect?
Lots of the data coming in from satellites has errors in it, so we spend a lot of time fixing errors in satellite data, weather data and aircraft operating data that no one even knows is there!
A good example is an airline recently asked us to confirm the location of 400 aircraft spread over the world due to Covid. We were able to give them not only the location, but also the corrosion condition on each airframe and engine. We even discovered that across the fleet 800 engines 6 of them were on the wrong aircraft. Our data was more accurate and more easily accessible than the airline’s data on its own fleet!
Another example of our unusual data products is our capability to forecast when aircraft will, or won’t make contrails. There is a huge advantage to the military in knowing how likely an aircraft is to make contrails, and we are able to provide these insights with a high degree of accuracy. I’m sure you can imagine, sometimes they would want visible contrails, and sometimes they really wouldn’t! Contrails can also play an important part in environmental management — sometimes lots of contrails can trap heat in, other times they create unnatural shade.
What exciting stuff is still to come?
The further we get into defence, the more we realise there are some unusual and fascinating use cases. Some of it so advanced and so unusual it has never been contemplated before.
I am also really excited about the move towards clean energy for aircraft and how we can be a part of that movement; building aircraft propulsion systems that damage the environment less.
So, I guess SATAVIA does lots of high-technology data analytics, mainly focussed on aviation and environmental issues but also helping out with Covid and other complex problems. Besides all that, it’s good fun!
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