Article - Issue 43, June 2010

MacRobert Award 2010

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The Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award is the UK’s premier prize for engineering. It is awarded annually for an outstanding example of innovation of benefit to the community, which has also achieved commercial success. It seeks to demonstrate the importance of engineering and the contribution of engineers and scientists to national prosperity and international prestige.

Described at its launch as “the Nobel Prize for engineering”, the award was originally founded by the MacRobert Trusts and first presented in 1969. Every submission is reviewed by a panel of judges drawn from the Academy’s Fellowship and from all areas of engineering. The Award honours the winning company with a gold medal and the team members with a prize of £50,000. Here we showcase the four finalists for the award, starting with this year’s winner, announced at the Academy Awards Dinner on 7 June 2010.


Winner of the 2010 MacRobert Award

Taking 3g mobility global via satellite


Inmarsat

Inmarsat satellites now offer simultaneous voice and near half-megabit-per-second data services on land, at sea and in the air, virtually anywhere at reasonable cost. The system that delivers this capability to satellite access terminals the size of laptops is known as Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN).

Innovation

The innovation was to see, in 1998, that synergies among three emergent technologies – 3G, digital signal processing, and space-radiation-hardened VLSI ASICs – would enable delivery of 3G coverage globally, if the significant engineering challenges involved in making them work together could be overcome.

The Inmarsat team decided that broadband data services, especially email and the internet, were about to become an essential part of mobile communication and that its new system needed to support them. It chose 3G technology to achieve this, a year before the standard was approved and at least three years before the first commercial use. The team could capitalise on £700 million of non-recurring engineering costs if a standard 3G core network could be used. This relied on finding a way to make the radio access network operate with base stations 35,600 km above the Earth’s surface, instead of being just a few kilometres away as in a typical cellular network.

This required a breakthrough in spectrum efficiency and radiated power. To conserve spectrum and increase power, the team turned to digital signal processing, specifically 16QAM modulation, turbocoding, digital beam forming and digital channelisation. The sophistication of these schemes meant that the processing power in space needed to be dramatically enlarged. Inmarsat worked with the UK arm of Astrium to develop digital signal processors employing radiation-hardened, 0.5-micron-gate ASICs. When coupled with the power-expanding capabilities of equally innovative antenna and feed technology, this enabled the satellites to achieve a 60-fold increase in radiated power, and a 15-fold increase in channelisation.

By the end of 2009, more than 40,000 BGAN terminals were active around the world, with at least 15 different designs in categories including hand portable, land vehicular, maritime (branded FleetBroadband) and aeronautical (branded SwiftBroadband).

Community Benefit

On 20 January 2010, at the height of the earthquake recovery effort in Haiti, a total of 472 BGAN terminals were in service. At one point, 137 terminals, supporting many more individual users, were sending and receiving data. During the course of the day, the beam was used for a total of 36,054 minutes of communication, with gigabytes of information transferred – a vivid demonstration of BGAN’s benefit to the worldwide community.

The possibilities enabled by BGAN’s remote working capabilities are obvious and growing. The benefits of communications mobility increase as price and size fall. In 1975, the earliest mobile satellite phone terminal cost £50,000 and was a little smaller than a Mini car. By 1995, a terminal had shrunk to the size of a large briefcase, cost £9,000 and offered the choice of voice or ISDN. Today, a terminal is the size of a laptop, costs £1,200 and serves the voice and data needs of a ten-person remote office.


Finalists of the 2010 MacRobert Award

Echelon hydraulic prosthesis


Blatchford

Blatchford (Chas A Blatchford & Sons) has been manufacturing prosthetic limbs for 120 years. It has now developed Echelon, a hydraulic ankle and foot that combined, with carbon leaf springs, mimics human muscles. It is able to cope with the multitude of situations presented by daily life, such as walking on level or uneven ground or ascending and descending stairs.

Prosthetic feet have come a long way in the last 30 years: new types of sockets, carbon fibre materials, ‘sense of feel’ technology, and biosensors have all transformed amputees’ lives. As yet, however, prosthetics manufacturers have struggled to produce an ankle-foot replacement that can cope adequately with inclines.

When a natural foot pushes against a slope, over 26bones and 30 joints combine effortlessly to correct the body’s alignment. It is difficult for a prosthetic foot to adjust alignment in the same way. Blatchford’s prosthetic foot, Echelon, uses hydraulics on top of the prosthetic and carbon composite leaf springs to mimic a natural foot.

Innovation

The design uses a small hydraulic piston with a pair of control valves to self-adjust the angle of the foot. When an amputee stands on inclines or declines, the hydraulic fluid adjusts the foot to match the gradient, relieving the amputee of having to adjust their posture, which can lead to adverse affects such as ulceration in the lower back and knees.

When walking, Echelon has no spring-return and so remains in a slightly upward position as it is swung forward, giving a better ground clearance. This minimises the potential risk of falling and offers a more natural gait. When ascending and descending stairs, Echelon moves naturally to offer the safest stance. On uneven ground, the two-toed carbon leaf springs are able to rise and fall independently, offering further stability.

Community benefit

Blatchford’s design process is based on the needs of the 15,000 amputees it serves directly in the UK, including the requirements of soldiers returning with war injuries as well as feedback from customers worldwide. Users of the Echelon prosthetic foot have described it as ‘life transforming’, saying it increases their comfort, makes them far less tired and allows them safely and comfortably to walk across varied terrain and negotiate stairs without fear of falling. One patient even spoke of standing on a sloped floor at a concert for two hours without discomfort which is unheard of with a standard prosthesis.

Echelon was released in the USA in October 2008, the UK in January 2009, and shortly thereafter to the rest of the world. Sales continue to increase and up to 31 March 2010, Blatchford has sold 1,157units – 67.7% of them in the United States, amounting to £2 million in sales.



Minehound landmine detector


Cobham technical services

Each month, around 800 people die from coming in to contact with one of the 60 to 100 million unexploded landmines buried in 62 countries around the world. Despite the best efforts of governments and charities, locating and neutralising them is a slow process. Cobham Technical Services has developed a radar-based detector, which in conjunction with a metal detector, reduces the number of false alarms and simplifies the process of humanitarian mine clearance in post-conflict regions.

Traditional methods of landmine clearance can be inefficient. Figures show that there are between 100 and 200 false alarms for each landmine successfully detected. The MINEHOUND dual sensor landmine detector developed by Cobham Technical Services (formerly ERA Technology) in collaboration with Vallon GmbH, uses an innovative and intuitive audio interface developed as part of the Cobham ground penetrating radar subsystem. This enables the operator to remain alert to their environment while operating the system, a key benefit for humanitarian landmine clearance. Crucially, the radar system reduces the false alarm rate by a factor of around seven, improving the efficiency and speed of clearance.

Innovation

MINEHOUND uses a combination of radar and metal detector to identify buried landmines. The metal detector indicates the mass of metal in an object, and the radar provides the size, depth and symmetry of the object which means that minimum metal mines can also be identified. MINEHOUND is designed to ignore targets with small radar cross sections and not alert the user to objects such as bullets or grenade fragments. All functionality, including signal processing and monitoring, is integrated onto a single printed circuit board.

Conventional radar system displays, such as those found on ships or at airports, take considerable skill and training to interpret. MINEHOUND uses a simple audio system to inform the operator of the characteristics of a target.

Field tests led to several refinements in MINEHOUND’s design. The radar has low power consumption (2.3 W) and a continuous operating time of up to 10 hours. It can also be used in kneeling or prone positions, is lightweight (under 4 kg) and has no external cables or wires. It can operate in temperatures ranging between -32 °C and 55 °C, and can even be used in standing water.

Community benefit

The cost of detecting and removing mines is around £1 million for each square kilometre, mostly due to the high number of false alarms from metal debris. Trials of MINEHOUND in Cambodia, Bosnia and Angola, countries recognised for their high number of landmines, identified that the cost of removing landmines could be significantly reduced and allow almost one third more land to be cleared using current budgets.

Since MINEHOUND was put into production, sales have steadily increased. In 2010, Cobham and its partner expect to deliver 1,000 MINEHOUND systems to mine clearance teams around the world.



Alpha


Lucite International

Poly methyl methacrylate (p-MMA) is a widely used and recyclable polymer. Its unique properties, including optical clarity, colour, and weather resistance, give applications in high-grade optical polymers used in LCD televisions and high-capacity optical discs. p-MMA is also used in dental and medical adhesives and fittings, low emission paints and coatings and domestic and commercial products such as bathroom furniture and signage.

Lucite International has demonstrated a new process for making methyl methacrylate (MMA). Their ‘Alpha’ process overcomes the environmental, manufacturing, and commercial shortcomings of existing processes. The 120 ktpa ‘first-in-class’ Alpha 1 plant was successfully commissioned in Q4 2008.

Innovation

Conventional processes for manufacture of MMA use highly toxic (hydrogen cyanide) and corrosive (sulphuric acid) chemicals and have high-priced, oil-based feed-stocks with limited availability (acetone, isobutylene). Because of these constraints, MMA plants have been typically limited to less than 100 ktpa. With Alpha technology, single-stream plants greater than 250ktpa are possible, reducing capital investment by up to 30%per tonne of MMA. Alpha’s commodity chemical feed-stocks (methanol, ethylene and carbon monoxide) give production costs that are up to 30% less than existing processes.

Alpha has two new catalytic steps both of which use in-house developed catalysts and novel separations. The complexity of the technology involved, a dearth of fundamental chemical engineering design information and the exacting MMA specification, meant the new process had to be micro-piloted prior to full-scale design. Piloting was done on a small scale (0.5 kg/hr) so a scale-up of 30000:1 was required for the Alpha 1 plant.

Commercial success

The average global demand growth for MMA is 4% a year, an increase that reflects new applications that utilise p-MMA’s unique properties. The strategic intent in developing Alpha is to ensure that application growth of p-MMA is not constrained by oil-linked manufacturing costs and that Alpha, given its feed-stocks, is the technology of choice for new-build MMA plants.

Singapore was selected as the location for the first ($230million) Alpha plant. It was commissioned to plan in Q3 2008 and contributed significantly to the Lucite International group of companies’ profit in 2009. Performance and reliability have exceeded design expectations. Operating costs are in close alignment to the attractive predictions that inspired the development of the process. Plans for Alpha 2 are well-advanced: at 200-250 ktes this will be the world’s largest single-stream MMA plant.

Community benefit

Compared to existing MMA processes, Alpha has the following significant advantages: no significant inventories of hazardous chemicals; by-product formation is low, little waste treatment is required; raw material efficiency exceeds all other MMA technologies; no reliance on valuable, crude oil derived feed-stocks; excellent co-gen fit, Alpha is a perfect low-grade heat sink; and it is capital efficient, requiring less material and resources to build.

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