Article - Issue 81, December 2019

In brief

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George Winfield won the JC Gammon award, which offers training and networking opportunities to help grow his business

In October, a technology to help detect sepsis was awarded the JC Gammon award. George Winfield, Founder and CEO of Spyras, won a £15,000 prize and support from the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub.

Every 3.5 seconds someone in the world dies from sepsis and earlier identification of the condition could save up to 14,000 lives a year in the UK alone. Spyras has helped develop breathing analysing technologies that could enable improved monitoring of hospital patient’s breathing and help detect sepsis.

One of the early symptoms of sepsis is rapid breathing. Currently, breathing rate in hospitals is measured by manually counting the rise and fall of a patient’s chest. Spyras, using a range of technologies, such as paper-based sensors, could monitor breathing continuously and more reliably. This would enable doctors to see trends that might not be apparent from manual observations and make more informed decisions about patient care.

The prototype paper sensors being developed by Spyras will provide continuous monitoring of respiratory rate, inhalation and exhalation periods and depth of breathing. Machine learning will help predict when a patient is beginning to deteriorate and alert clinicians early.


Researchers at DeepMind and the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Classics have developed ‘Pythia’, a set of algorithms to restore text missing from ancient documents and tablets. 

Greek texts

A broken tablet with Greek inscription dating from the fifth century BC © SA3.0 Wikimedia

It’s sometimes difficult for historians to read ancient tablets or manuscripts when entire sections of symbols have been wiped away. If a few characters have been lost, then reasonable guesses can be made, but when whole words or sets of words have gone then identifying the meaning of texts can be problematic. 
Pythia consists of neural networks using sets of algorithms that have been trained to recognise patterns of ancient Greek inscriptions. 

To train Pythia, the world’s largest digital body of 35,000 ancient Greek inscriptions was converted to machine-actionable text. Pythia takes a sequence of damaged text as input and then generates 20 hypotheses, or character sequences, for researchers to compare and choose the one they think is the most appropriate. It does this in seconds, whereas human experts would take about two hours to decipher 50 inscriptions. 

The system has a 30% error rate compared human experts’ 57%. Pythia’s ability to use contextual clues to make predictions makes it a useful tool for historians working on damaged Greek texts. An online version has now been open-sourced, which its developers hope will aid and inspire future research in the area.



The Bloodhound car reached its highest speed in the Kalahari Desert © Elliot Davies

In November, the Bloodhound supersonic car passed the 1,000 kilometres per hour landmark as it reached speeds of 1,010kph (628mph) in the South African desert, becoming one of the top 10 fastest cars in the world. 

The car passed the 5-mile mark in just 50 seconds, as it prepared for its land speed record attempt in 2020, where it seeks to beat the 763.035mph record. In Kalahari, the car reached the speed before twin parachutes were released to slow the car down. Slowing down the car is one of the key challenges – engineers and the driver need to know that the car can slow down and stop safely before they can increase the speed. It was the first time the car has been seen with its precision-machined solid aluminium wheels, made specially to withstand the stresses of traveling at supersonic speeds. 

The Bloodhound team’s primary objective is to engage and inspire people of all ages through the most extreme application of science, technology, engineering and maths.


Engineers at WMG and the University of Warwick have 3D-printed a made-to-measure bionic hand in 10 hours. 
The device incorporates muscle sensors to control an articulated thumb, enabling it to function similarly to a human hand. They have embedded the electrical circuitry linking the motion-controlling muscle sensors with the motors and battery into the structure of the bionic hand to provide a durable prosthetic.

Engineers have tested the durability of the printed electrical circuitry to understand how well it will endure the bending and flexing that it might experience in use.

They have also developed a website so that people can interact with the manufacturers to order a 3D-printed hand, allowing them to insert the measurements of their arm, and select what colour they want their hand to be, providing them with a tailored and personalised product.

The IMPACT project, led by Iterate Design and Innovation Ltd, in collaboration with WMG, University of Warwick, C Enterprise (UK) Ltd and Printed Electronics Ltd, was made possible thanks to a grant of nearly £900,000 from Innovate UK, with the aim of developing a 3D-printing technology with the ability to print plastic products with integrated electrical circuitry, a capability that they have demonstrated in the bionic hand.


Leaves on the line

The use of dry ice would counter capacity issues on trains as large tanks of water would not be needed for cleaning © University of Sheffield

Professor Roger Lewis, a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Chair from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is working with IceTech Technologies and Arriva Rail North to counter the effects of leaves on the line by using dry ice. 

An estimated 50 million leaves fall onto the tracks of UK railway lines every autumn. As the leaves fall onto the rails, they are compacted under the weight of trains to form a slippery layer causing wheels to lose their grip. These issues are estimated to cost the railway industry around £345 million per year to address, as well as causing delays and cancellations.

The current solution to combat the low adhesion of wheels on rails is to apply sand direct from the train. This is done automatically when the train driver selects ‘emergency braking’ or when adhesion loss is experienced. This sanding process can cause damage to wheels and rails as well as leaving residue on the tracks. 

The new method uses dry ice pellets to blast the rail head in a stream of supersonic air that freezes the leaves and makes them brittle. The pellets then turn back into gas, increase in volume and blow the leaves off the line. Trials were carried out on passenger services in October and November this year and could be rolled out across the wider rail industry in 2020.


Engineering Biology cover

In November 2019, the Royal Academy of Engineering published Engineering biology: A priority for growth. The report highlights the UK’s world-leading research in the field and its potential. 

Its recommendations include calls on the business sector and others to adopt emerging technologies and accelerate commercialisation. Engineering biology applies engineering principles to design biological systems, with potential ground-breaking applications across a range of sectors: food, chemicals, materials, water, energy, health and environmental protection. 

The innovations range from clothes made from spider silk, to meat alternatives and microbes used to manufacture fuels. Such techniques could disrupt existing industries with faster, greener and cheaper products and processes.

There are already more than 1,800 UK businesses undertaking industrial biotechnology-related activity. These employ over 14,000 people, generating £3.7 billion in revenue. The report found a consensus of practitioners that recommend help to translate innovation into commercialisation. 

The report recommends building better connections between well-established bio-technology companies and synthetic biology startups and spin-outs to scale and adopt emerging technologies to ensure that UK companies are international leaders in engineering biology. 

Download the report at 


STEM Bytes Festivals
National Museum of Computing
The National Museum of Computing holds STEM Bytes for creative computing fun. From Minecraft to Lego and Raspberry Pi to BBC micro:bits, there is plenty to do to unlock imaginations, inspire and entertain. Educational fun for all the family, providing byte-sized tasters of coding, robotics, augmented reality and virtual reality.

Riverside Museum Glasgow
Now to 31 January 2020
Driving Force – Dorothée Pullinger and the Galloway Car exhibition showcases the story of Scotland’s first woman car manufacturer. In 1922, Dorothée Pullinger was a pioneering engineer and an early member of the Womens’ Engineering Society.

Nottingham Festival of Science and Curiosity
12 to 19 February 2020
A week-long festival that takes science, technology, engineering and maths out of the lab and into our everyday lives.

The National Science and Media Museum Bradford
Get hands-on with interactive exhibits, including an anti-gravity mirror, echo tube and the light lab.

Cambridge Science Festival
9 to 22 March 2020
A two-week celebration of science and engineering through talks, interactive activities, films and workshops.

The Big Bang Fair
11 to 14 March 2020
The annual Big Bang fair in Birmingham is the UK’s largest celebration of STEM for young people. Visitors to the fair can get hands-on at a range of workshops and exhibits, or take part in STEM shows. 



88 pianists

Students prepare to take a bow in front of the grand piano and 88 connected mechanical ‘fingers’

On 21 August, 88 schoolchildren from across the UK broke the world record for the highest number of people playing the same piano simultaneously. A previous record had been set last year with 21 school pupils in Holland gathered around, below and above a single piano. 

The UK record attempt was the culmination of a two-year project initiated by Professor Julian Allwood FREng, Professor of Engineering and the Environment at the University of Cambridge. Rather than have lots of people each touching the keys, Allwood decided to turn the feat into an engineering exercise for primary school students and university researchers. He gathered a team of 100 young professional musicians and engineers who worked with 35 schools to stimulate pupils to think about and practice engineering principles. The end result was a complex mechanism that succeeded in playing all 88 notes on a concert keyboard at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham in front of an audience of 2,000.

The original idea was built around the wish to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci. While Leonardo da Vinci is most famous as a painter, he also had a keen interest in maths, engineering and invention. Professor Allwood posed the question “Has the smart phone killed invention?” and wanted a project that would fuse science and art to test this question. Engineering researchers worked with Key Stage 2 pupils to beat the piano playing record. “The most efficient way to play a piano key with 88 people would be to position them seven metres away with a light stiff wire pulling a simply-pivoted lever at the keyboard.” Professor Allwood says, “But it’s better, far better, to play the key with an ultra-awesome toothbrush, a banana gun or a flying rabbit projected by a catapult which is what we ended up with!” 

26th key

Brockwell Junior School using the kit of parts. The school’s design of interconnected cogs was chosen to play the 26th key of the piano

Teams of two engineers and a musician from the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire at Birmingham City University visited 35 schools three times over a year building up to the performance. For the first visit, children worked in groups to build a mechanism to play a chime bar remotely from a kit of parts, and then to work as a class to make a simple piece of music with their mechanisms. They were then given a piece of A3 paper, with a picture of a piano on one side and a stick-player at the other, and asked if they could invent a way to play the piano that no one had ever thought of before.

“With that simple request”, says Allwood: “Heaven’s gates opened. Unconstrained by any sense that there might be a ‘right answer’ and with a cavalier disregard for the principles taught in first year undergraduate courses in engineering, the children responded with a freedom we couldn’t possibly have anticipated or recreated ourselves. By Christmas we had received 2,500 original solutions to our challenge, with extraordinary ideas both for the mechanisms themselves and for their appearance.” 

The Stretcherlator designed by Abbey Junior School involves a decorated hand, mounted on jack scissors operated by a set of connected levers. This was turned into the device to hit the 15th key.

A panel selected 88 designs and two more visits were made to each school. Converting the pupils’ designs into reliably-working mechanisms involved designers of all levels of experience solving a variety of engineering challenges. How much lateral movement would be needed in a Rainbow-unicorn-cat-spaghetti-meatball-see-saw? What shape should the flowers be to ensure that, as the carriages of a flower-train collide with a short lever-arm, the note plays reliably? How stiff and taut should the string connecting the giant door to the interface be?

stretcherlator design

The Stretcherlator designed by Niamh at Abbey Junior School. The students built a giant hand that extended using a pantograph mechanism, which works like an accordion. This was turned into the device to hit the 15th key

Enabling the assembly of the mechanisms depended on the inspiration of chief engineer, Dr Chris Cleaver in Cambridge, who created an architecture for the whole project with two critical designs. Firstly, he designed an interface at the piano keyboard, rather like a mechanical typewriter, to allow the children’s mechanisms to pull, push or impact one end of a lever whose other end (protected with the tip of a snooker cue) would play the piano key. Secondly, he designed a floor plan to show where each mechanism could attach to the floor: even at a seven-metre radius, each mechanism could only be 25 centimetres wide if the players stood within a semi-circle, so lateral stability was critical.

Researchers in manufacturing technology at the Universities of Cambridge, Sheffield, Liverpool, Nottingham, Bath and the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield helped hone the individual designs. In the weeks before the concert the full set of mechanisms were set up and tested in a large lab at Cambridge. 
Two removal vans brought the full assembly to the International Convention Centre in Birmingham, where a team of 30 engineers erected it. After a rehearsal, the construction was fine-tuned. The next day, the International Academy of Production Engineering watched the demonstration of creativity in engineering and music. Fifteen minutes after, Julian Lloyd Webber, Principal of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, confirmed to the audience that all 88 notes had been played, establishing a new world record. A media storm followed with appearances on BBC’s One Show and 4.5 million hits on the Chinese blogging site Weibo. 

A film of the performance and an interactive keyboard showing the story behind every note is online at

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