Young, female and from the east: The new face of aviation research

Jul. 10, 2017

Rita Markovits-Somogyi is one of nine independent academics who make up the SESAR 2020 Scientific Committee. Young, female and Hungarian, Prof Markovits-Somogyi is bringing her blend of academic-industry expertise to bear on the work of the Committee, providing recommendations on SESAR’s exploratory research and on the transfer of knowledge and outcomes to the programme’s industrial research activities. In this article, she explains how she got into ATM research, what she sees are the big issues facing our sector in the years to come and how SESAR can help address them.

 

What drew you to research and more specifically to ATM research?

I have always had an inquisitive mind that is bent on searching for answers to the questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’. I love to understand the logic behind complex systems. ATM is definitely a complex system, and I am fascinated by unravelling it and discovering the determining factors and underlying relationships that make the system work.

 

This fascination led me to become a transportation engineer. Since graduating, I have been working in different sectors of the aviation industry, starting at the Hungarian Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), then as a PhD student and lecturer at the Budapest University of Technology (BME) and now as system development engineer and project manager at HungaroControl, Hungarian air navigation service provider (ANSP).  Adding additional flavour to my career was the short period I worked for the European Commission as a translator. I have kept up with my research activities throughout these years.

 

What was the most recent “Eureka” moment you witnessed in the field of ATM research?

I have recently been involved in research connected to performance-based navigation (PBN), more specifically, in detecting and processing interference events that may have an adverse effect on Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) navigation. Within HungaroControl, I am manager of the Horizon 2020 project, BEYOND, in which I have been honoured to work together with colleagues from the Department of Geodesy and Surveying from the Budapest University of Technology. Through this work, I have witnessed very directly how research on down-to-earth tasks like a PBN procedure design, coupled with GNSS interference monitoring, can be considerably advanced when ANSPs work together with academia. The “Eureka” moment was seen in the eyes of the university colleagues, as they realised how working in this way can open up new perspectives in research  e.g. by investigating the aviation-related effects of jammers (personal privacy devices - PPDs).

Is ATM moving with the times? If yes, what are the drivers? If not, what is holding us back?

The aviation industry, and ATM in particular, is one of the most unusual transport modes if we look at it from the aspect of “modernity”.   On the one hand, ATM uses solutions from the forefront of technology (remote towers or the integration of the drones). On the other hand, due to safety it remains the one of the most conservative transport modes. It is this delicate balance that has to be taken into account when striving towards a more modern ATM system. However, ATM must keep up with the times and remain open to novel technologies, especially those of disruptive kind. The drivers for change come from inside but equally outside the sector. For instance external factors such as socio-economics and demographics are reshaping the world as we know it. While changes inevitably come with each new generation, the Generation Z with its new ways of accessing and processing information, will provide an unprecedented and valuable source of fresh ideas that we should seize upon.

What are the biggest challenges facing ATM today?

The hottest topic that comes to my mind is undoubtedly that of unmanned aerial vehicles, or commonly referred to as drones, and how they can be incorporated into the ‘traditional’ ATM system. There are several technologies that could be seen as the future solution for their surveillance and handling, even though it is not entirely clear yet which one will finally prevail. Nonetheless, it is an issue that the industry is already fully aware of and is on its way to tackling. I find it even more interesting to see how even small changes to the system, like the temporary closure of a flight information region (FIR) may have consequences that require considerably adapting the system. Thus, I believe, the biggest challenge for ATM is to be able to focus on the inner resources and external opportunities in order to realise the potential that may be gained in the wake of what might at first seem an anomaly or even a crisis.

How do you see SESAR meeting those challenges?

The strength of SESAR lies in the modularity with which its work is organised. It is always difficult to find common solutions to specific questions of a concrete nature. SESAR can meet the concrete challenges by providing tailored solutions to the issues of different orders of magnitude. For example, the European ATM Master Plan and the SESAR Solution Catalogue offer answers to short, medium-term and long-term questions, and these are further elaborated by Scientific Committee who are also looking beyond 2035. Also, I like the fact that SESAR uses the technology readiness level (TRL) categorisations, in addition to European operational concept validation methodology (EOCVM), as these ensure that every research project is assessed at its proper level of maturity. This approach is undoubtedly enhancing the potential of SESAR to meet the challenges outlined above.

How do you feel your expertise and participation in the SESAR Scientific Committee will contribute to supporting the SESAR vision?

I am delighted to see the diverse composition of the SESAR Scientific Committee. It comprises experts coming from very different backgrounds, offering multi-dimensional perspectives on issues. As a female researcher-engineer from central eastern Europe, working at an ANSP and probably being the most junior member of the Committee, I will certainly have a very different perspective on issues compared to my colleagues whose backgrounds are so diverging to mine. However, it is exactly this diversity that will help us formulate the most comprehensive vision possible.

I believe my added value is the fact that I work at an ANSP but am at the same time active in academic work, so am able to integrate these two perspectives. Having also spent some time with the Hungarian CAA, I understand the regulatory aspects and can integrate this perspective into discussions. I intend to contribute to the work of the Committee with an open mind and to facilitate the synergies between these different but overlapping areas.

In your opinion, which projects in the current SESAR exploratory research portfolio really stand out and why?

My personal favourite is undeniably STRESS, a project which aims to find the ways to objectively measure controller stress, workload and attention, and determine the correct balance between automation and humans. Inviting the human sciences and the knowledge stemming from the human biology, is an exciting and creative way of tackling problems and an excellent example of cross-fertilisation between different scientific domains. Ever since I read the book ‘Predictably Irrational’ by Dan Ariely, I have been on the lookout for the possibilities where ‘nudges’ could be used within the transportation domain. To sum up, I believe this area of research can bring us revolutionary new ways of thinking about how humans and machines can be integrated and may also bring about important safety benefits.