Women in Engineering: Dr. Naomi Allen

We talk sustainability, diversity and more with Dr. Allen, a Senior Technologist, Whole Aircraft, at the Aerospace Technology Institute.

Naomi is a Senior Technologist in the Whole Aircraft team at the Aerospace Technology Institute. A big part of her role involves developing conceptual aircraft models to allow the ATI to evaluate the potential benefit of new technologies and understand what future aircraft might look like and what performance can be achieved through different technology development. She also supports and assesses funding proposals to make sure that funding is being directed towards innovative technologies which will provide benefit for the UK aerospace industry.

How did you get into aerospace?

I studied Engineering at Durham University, specialising in Aeronautics in my final year, having found aerodynamics the most interesting part of a broad-ranging degree which covered concrete to capacitors! I then pursued this interest, doing a PhD developing airflow sensors, also at Durham. This led to my first job after university at an aerospace consultancy company, which was a great environment to see a range of areas within aerospace, while developing my specialist skills in aerodynamics. I have since spent a few years working in Formula 1, before returning to the aerospace industry because I find the larger scope and ambition more appealing.

What does Sustainability in aerospace mean to you?

Keeping people flying! Sustainability is often considered purely in environmental terms, but I prefer to think of it in the broadest sense as I believe the environmental and economic aspects of sustainability are intrinsically linked. We need to be developing air vehicles which meet people’s needs — that could mean opening up new markets such as urban air mobility for greater flexibility in air transport, as well as making sure that we’re aligned with the public’s expectations on reducing CO2 emissions and green aviation. All while recognising that cost is key to accessibility and challenging ourselves to ensure that everyone can benefit from innovations in aerospace technology.

You’ve recently written about in-flight social distancing. What impact has Covid-19 had on the sustainability agenda?

Covid-19 has had a big impact on sustainability within aerospace which I expect to be long-lasting. We’ve seen airlines retiring older, less fuel efficient aircraft from their fleets ahead of schedule — one of the challenges of improving emissions in aviation is the duration for which aircraft remain in service, meaning that new technologies can take decades to have a significant impact at fleet-level. There have also been announcements around the world of new investment in aerospace, much of which is specifically focussed on green technology, and this is likely to accelerate the adoption of technologies which improve sustainability in aviation.

How can we ensure sustainability throughout the entire aircraft lifecycle?

While sustainability throughout the aircraft lifecycle is important, I would go even beyond that and say that we need to look outside just the aircraft to really understand the full environmental impact of aviation. There is a lot of focus at the moment on alternative energy sources for aircraft, such as batteries or hydrogen fuel cells and these definitely have the potential to offer zero in-flight emissions. However, it’s really important to look at the complete “well-to-wake” lifecycle of aviation fuels to ensure that we’re not just transferring the carbon emissions to another point in the lifecycle e.g using electricity from fossil-fuel burning power stations to charge batteries or produce hydrogen. On the vehicle level, it’s also crucial to plan for recyclability or other sustainable end-of-life options in materials and components early in the design phase, as it becomes harder and more expensive to incorporate them the later it is considered.

What do you (and the ATI) do to help create a more sustainable industry?

ATI-funded projects cover a huge range of technologies, ranging from those directly looking at reducing fuel burn in engines or developing new zero-emission propulsion systems, to those which improve manufacturing efficiency or speed up the design process and are not directly on the aircraft at all. Although some will have a bigger impact than others, it would be hard to find an ATI-funded project which doesn’t by some measure improve the sustainability of the industry. We also develop our own aircraft models, which allows us to create tools for smaller companies to understand at aircraft-level the environmental impact of the technologies that they develop, which they may not have the capacity to do in-house.

Cranfield’s Professor Iain Gray about the ATI’s Fly Zero Project

How are diversity and sustainability connected?

Sustainability in aerospace is undoubtedly a big challenge for the industry which is going to require great innovation. One of the best ways to drive innovation is through diversity — we need new people from different backgrounds to challenge our preconceptions about how things should work. This is a very exciting time to be coming into the industry since it is a period of rapid change, and there are great opportunities to get involved in the development of technologies and aircraft which can have a big influence on green aviation.

Aerospace is a male-dominated industry, yet more and more women are choosing it as their career. What are some of the misconceptions about women in the aerospace and aviation industry?

I think some people fear that being in a minority in the workplace can be limiting and reduce your opportunities, but in my experience the opposite has been true — I find that being memorable amongst a sea of similar faces has great potential for opening doors. Colleagues through my career have been focussed on my ability to do my job, and I’ve never felt that their expectations for me are any different to those for anyone else. Engineering can also be perceived to be quite physical and hands-on which might not suit everybody, although I’ve enjoyed being able to be involved at that level on some projects. However, there are a huge range of roles and there are other things I’ve worked on where I have been entirely office-based, and that’s definitely an option for a career in engineering if that’s what appeals. For me, the variety is one of the best things about a career in aerospace!

What advice would you give to young women who are interested in a career in aerospace or aviation?

There are probably very few teenagers who can honestly say that standing out for doing something different is how they want to be seen — fitting in and conforming are a much more comfortable place to be. The thing to remember is that whatever route you take into a career in aerospace or aviation, as soon as you join that community you are part of a team who all share the same interests. If you choose to go to university and study engineering, you’ll find yourself working on projects with other students who share your enthusiasm for understanding how things work and making them better. Or if you dream of piloting an aircraft around the world, then learning to fly will find you surrounded by others with a similar passion for flight. And the same is true for a hundred other careers in aerospace and aviation. Don’t be put off by people who don’t share your dreams — talk to those who do, and you’ll find that the things you share are much more important than the things which make you different.

Thank you Naomi for taking the time to share your story and your insights with our audience!

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For more information about the programme, please contact the ATI Boeing Accelerator team:

Gabi Matic — gm@atiboeingaccelerator.com | linkedin.com/in/gabrielamatic
Wil Benton — wb@atiboeingaccelerator.com | linkedin.com/in/fatkidonfire
Ksenia Kurileva — kk@atiboeingaccelerator.com | linkedin.com/in/kseniakurileva

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Gabriela Matic

Gabriela Matic

Co-founder Metta @mettatalks, former Programme Director ATI Boeing Accelerator — Alumna @igniteaccel / @techstars '16 NYC