As head of the Air Traffic and Navigation Services Company of South Africa’s recently established Technology, Research and Development division, Senior Manager of Technology (R&D), Leago Takalani is taking the air navigation service provider to new heights, ensuring that it remains at the forefront of technological developments within the aviation industry.

The Air Traffic and Navigations Services Company of South Africa (ATNS) is not only the sole provider of civilian air traffic services, training and related services within South Africa, but is also responsible for 10% of the world’s airspace. Consequently, it relies on cutting-edge technology to ensure a safe, orderly and expeditious air traffic environment for all users.

Flying has become a natural part of our everyday lives and aviation technology is progressing in leaps and bounds. According to Leago, discussions are already taking place on the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for various applications in commercial civilian aviation, as this technology has been used and proven in the military.

"The concept is still very much in its early and experimental stages as a disruptive technology, but if one considers that a few decades ago people recoiled at the concept of ‘automatic pilot’, which today has become one of the safest ways to fly, then the notion of unmanned aircraft is not as futuristic as it may seem."

Technology management, as well as research and development (R&D) of sophisticated technological innovations, are not new to ATNS, says Leago, but were previously fragmented across the business.

"Fragmentation is never conducive to enhancing organisational effectiveness. As a result, our technology management and R&D activities were not well coordinated. Additionally, several capacity shortcomings were identified.

"Consolidating all the technology strategy related activities so that they could be managed from a central point became imperative to ensure continuity and facilitate the seamless integration of newly developed technologies, as well enable the organisation to maximise investment value from the efficient use of existing technological infrastructure assets," she continues.

The division was established in April 2011with Leago at the helm. As the head of this dynamic division, she holds the responsibility to provide the organisation with technology strategic direction in the areas of R&D, technology performance monitoring and evaluation, IT network infrastructure management, maintenance concept design, technology asset management, provision of specialised system support and consulting services.

Leagro’s passion for technology and innovation made her ideally suited to the position. Furthermore, her involvement in working with various cutting edge technologies in several African countries, and the registration of patents at companies she had previously worked for clearly demonstrates that she is a visionary at heart, an attribute that Leago believes is essential for anyone involved in R&D.

"You have to have a pioneering spirit and be a firm believer in your own ideas," she states. "Innovators are always looking beyond the status quo for new ways to expand our technological horizons, and don’t always receive immediate buy-in when they present a new idea, so they need to be prepared to stand up for what they believe will work in the future and add value to customer satisfaction."

These attributes, together with the ability to self-learn and grasp new concepts quickly, were the qualities Leago looked for when putting her team together. The vibrant and passionate team comprises of a mix of engineers, air traffic controllers and air traffic system specialists.

"All are experts in their own field, but also have an understanding of the other disciplines, so there is an ongoing convergence of skills and expertise," says Leago.

"An essential component of our R&D strategy is the need to remain abreast of the latest technological developments to ensure that we are equipped to evolve technology beyond its current capacity in a safe manner," she continues.

"Because we are not a research institute we rely heavily on partnerships that will yield win-win results for the organisation and ultimately the broader aviation industry in South Africa. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we prefer to look at ways to expand and enrich on what has already been accomplished."

To this end agreements around co-operative R&D programmes and skills development exchange programmes have been signed with key industry players across the globe, including Airways New Zealand, Italian air navigation service provider ENAV (Ente Nazionale Di Assistenza Al Volo) and the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Pretoria, to name a few.

"These partnerships are already yielding results," says Leago. "For example, two of our employees are currently attending aviation related master’s programme in France and will be completing their studies in September."

Leago is also making significant strides in positioning ATNS as a global thought leader, ensuring that it is continuously seen as being at the forefront of air navigation innovation.

"We have participated in a number of international industry forums and put forward ATNS’s position, relevant to the African market. We have found that many technologies are more suited to the traffic patterns and volumes in the US and Europe, and we need to ensure that we influence the innovation system of aviation technologies in the early stages, before the technology becomes ready for commercial use."

Leago also works closely with ATNS’s marketing division to generate awareness of the aviation industry and the numerous career opportunities it holds, especially for women.

"The aviation industry continues to be male-dominated, which I am working hard at to change," she says. "We need more female engineers to join our industry, especially with the opportunities we have in the areas of satellite and software systems. Additionally, we are faced with the challenge of attrition of highly skilled people through retirement, which is eroding the skills pool even further."

To address this issue, ATNS has women development and mentorships in place, specifically geared to supporting women through the journey of reaching the maximum competency level within the organisation.

"There’s no reason why women cannot begin making their mark in the industry," Leago declared and calls on all women to be bold and courageous. "I believe that if you want to get a job done, give it to a woman to do; the aviation industry needs people who can get the job done and create value for our customers and ultimately our African continent."