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Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

Connecting women and opportunity

Womanthology is a digital magazine and professional community powered by female energy and ingenuity.

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Winning an IET Transport Innovation Award with my team for introducing a world-first in air traffic control at Heathrow Airport – Katie Duffy, Design Authority for Time Based Separation at NATS


Katie Duffy works in a Design Authority role at NATS, an organisation that works with airports, airlines and air navigation service providers to create innovative air traffic solutions which help to optimise airport performance. Katie joined NATS in June 2007 on an industrial placement and since then she has worked in a number of systems engineering roles. In April 2014 she began working on Time Based Separation at Heathrow Airport, the world’s first implementation of time based radar separation for aircraft’s final approach. 

Katie Duffy
Katie Duffy

On Wednesday 18th November 2015, NATS and Lockheed Martin jointly scooped the prize for Best Transport Innovation at the IET’s annual awards. The accolade was in recognition of ‘Time Based Separation’, an aviation world-first introduced in March to cut delays at Heathrow.

About NATS and Time Based Separation

NATS provides air traffic control services in the UK and in other countries around the world. This involves air traffic control at airport towers, area control centres and consultation services for partners, suppliers and other air traffic control organisations.

Time Based Separation (TBS) is one of our newest innovations, developed in partnership with Lockheed Martin. It was developed for Heathrow Airport to reduce wind related delay, but is modular so can be applied to other airports too.

My background and role on the TBS team

I was always technical as a child and interested in problem solving, and at school I excelled in computing and science subjects. I chose to go to university to study Software Engineering and found that there were great opportunities after graduating, so it made sense to stay in the field.

I was part of the agile development team, defining how the system should work, integrating it with our environment and providing the verification, validation and assurance evidence our regulator requires for all changes. I’m now the Design Authority for the system in-service, so I continue to control the design envelope and lead the teams which maintain the system, meaning I am responsible for ensuring the system is capable of providing a service 24/7, 365 days a year.

Why ‘Time Based Separation’ is such an important innovation

Time Based Separation (TBS) is an air traffic control system in use at Heathrow which allows air traffic controllers to apply time separation between arriving aircraft instead of the traditional distance separation.

Heathrow-Airport-air-traffic-controlAircraft are separated by varying amounts based on the weather conditions, aircraft type and runway occupancy. TBS can convert some or all of these separation standards into time, helping to maintain the landing rate even in strong headwind conditions. This is because an aircraft’s airspeed is constant during the approach to the airport, but the groundspeed is directly affected by the windspeed. You can find out more about TBS here.

This is important because it can significantly reduce delay at one of the world’s busiest airports. On windy days, delay can become cumulative and result in cancellations, but TBS is helping to limit the impact of this.

Partnership with Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin are one of NATS’ key strategic partners and we collaborate on a number of different initiatives with them. Specifically during TBS, NATS and Lockheed Martin worked as an Agile Integrated Project Team, where NATS provided the specialist air traffic control design knowledge and Lockheed Martin provided the software development expertise.

Being a woman in a traditionally male dominated work environment

There will always be challenges in the workplace regardless of the industry and demographic. Irrespective of that, I act professionally at all times and expect my colleagues, regardless of gender, to act the same. Thankfully at NATS I have a great team, and this isn’t a big concern.

Advice to other women and girls considering careers in aviation and systems engineering

If aviation or engineering are of interest to anyone embarking on their career, they should try and get as much work experience as possible in their chosen field to give them the best head start. Experience and enthusiasm are the two key qualities to achieving in your career. Aviation and system engineering provide a unique challenge and is an area where you can see the lasting results of your efforts.

Coming up for me and my colleagues working on Time Based Separation

My role as the Design Authority means that I am responsible for the system in service, and ensuring that it continues to operate as designed. This also means I am heavily involved of the change management of the system, a key part of which is expanding the functionality of TBS into our ‘Intelligent Approach’ tool, which can provide even further benefit to our customers.

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