NATS says BI key to five-year investment plan

The UK’s air traffic control business NATS will make business intelligence (BI) a priority investment over the next five years

The UK’s air traffic control business NATS will make business intelligence (BI) a priority investment over the next five years, according to Martin Rolfe, managing director of operations at the company.

In the last financial year, NATS controllers guided 2.2 million flights over the UK and northern Atlantic. But since the downturn, priorities for airlines have changed, with a strong desire to cut costs, said Rolfe. 

As fuel accounts for 20-40% of overheads, he said the key focus for the company’s next five year investment period – starting in 2014 – will be how it can use BI to reduce fuel expenditure. 

“If we can cut costs by just 1-2% for airlines, we’ll be saving them a huge amount of money,” Rolfe told Computer Weekly.

NATS is looking at a variety of off-the-shelf BI tools and has already done some prototyping with Hitachi in this area. 

“BI tools and technology are now at a point where we can mine the huge amounts of operational data available to us in close to real-time and understand much better the precise impacts of our actions on the traffic flow in the air traffic management network,” said Rolfe.

BI tools increase traffic flow predictability

Previously NATS had to rely on flow management specialists to cope with the daily demands of the stream of aircraft into the UK.  

“BI tools, in conjunction with our experts will allow us to much better understand the effects of actions we and others take and predict the results, providing us the capability to proactively manage traffic in a more effective way,” said Rolfe.

"It also will allow us to focus on those actions that give us the biggest results, again improving the customer experience and allowing us to operate more efficiently.

“As an example – for every flight in UK airspace we calculate how 'perfect' it is in terms of CO2 efficiency. This takes into account things like characteristics of the flight profile, the aircraft performance and deviation from a great circle route.”

BI tools in this area have reduced processing time from weeks of intensive calculations to a few minutes. “This means we can now look at how we are performing in close to real time and make adjustments accordingly,” Rolfe said.

Collaboration cuts air traffic management costs

Another big area of operational planning is the Interoperability Through European Collaboration (iTEC) system, an air traffic management system being developed across a number of European air traffic control companies which will allow airlines across Europe to plan more efficient routes through collaborative working.

“From an IT perspective, the costs of initial development are lower, as they are shared by the parties involved, rather than us all having bespoke systems developed at high cost, as has traditionally been the case.  

“Additionally, by moving from a current mixture of legacy systems across our operation to one modern, common system, the maintenance costs are reduced, as is the cost of implementing new regulations and standards levied on us by UK and international air traffic management regulatory bodies,” Rolfe said.

“Of equal, if not greater importance is that the technology will allow us to offer our customers more fuel efficient passage through UK airspace and greater interoperability with neighbouring countries’ airspace, so the ATM experience for pilots is more seamless and predictable."

NATS recently awarded Lockheed Martin UK a seven-year contract extension to continue supporting the air traffic management systems based at Swanwick and Prestick. Under this contract, Lockheed Martin will support the NATS flight data processing system.

Lockheed Martin will provide to NATS a range of services including systems architecture, systems engineering, software development, systems integration and laboratory support.  
Under the extension, Lockheed Martin Information Systems and Global Solutions will continue to provide domain experts across all aspects of engineering and programme management.

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