MacRobert Award 2011


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.

The award was founded by the MacRobert Trust 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 6 June 2011.

MacRobert Award Winner 2011

Kinect senses the body in 3D, producing a classification of body parts via machine learning, and finally delivers the body skeleton

Kinect senses the body in 3D, producing a classification of body parts via machine learning, and finally delivers the body skeleton

Machine learning for Kinect human motion capture
Microsoft research

Launched in November 2010, Microsoft’s ‘Kinect for Xbox 360’ enables users to play games without a controller. Movies and music can be controlled with the wave of a hand or the sound of the voice so the user is, in effect, using their body as the controller.


The Kinect for Xbox 360 from Microsoft allows the user to interact with a computer without using a controller. This uses new motion-capture software that has only been made possible by a clever combination of machine learning and image processing. The software converts an incoming video-stream of 3D ‘depth images’ to give an interpretation of a moving human skeleton, at
30 frames per second.

Before Kinect, motion-capture equipment was available commercially, but required retro-reflective markers to be placed on the user’s body joints, to determine his or her position and orientation during data capture. For user interfaces, motion capture needs to take place without the use of markers.

‘Markerless’ motion capture systems had also been developed. However, these required careful initialisation with the human subject having to stand in a fixed pose and location, and often failed during rapid body motion resulting from misalignment between estimated and actual body poses.

To help achieve successful markerless motion capture, the Microsoft Research Cambridge laboratory has applied machine learning techniques to build a ‘classifier’ that can analyse depth images independently. This assigns the pixels in each image to one of 31 body parts, and is trained and tested using a very large database of images, covering varied poses and body types.

The classifier is efficiently engineered, using only a fraction of the available computing capacity. This is crucial to the practical success of Kinect.

Commercial success

Kinect for Xbox 360 has secured a position in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest selling consumer electronics device in a 60-day period, reaching the 8 million mark in the first two months after launch. The Kinect technology is one of the most significant innovations in gaming since the introduction of powerful multiprocessor hardware for dedicated gaming hardware at the turn of the century. The machine learning recognition capability constitutes a key component of that technology.

Benefit to the Community

Kinect for Xbox 360 has broadened the audience for gaming, introducing physically active games which are socially collaborative. Beyond gaming, Kinect for Microsoft Windows will soon be available for academics and hobbyists, and later on a commercial basis. This will broaden the technology’s scope to the control of computers and other machines, at a distance, by speech and by gesture, making technologies more readily accessible to the people who use them.

MacRobert Award Finalists 2011

Arrangement of segmented ceramic armour

Arrangement of segmented ceramic armour

Modular Ceramic Armour
Defence Science & Technology laboratory and NP Aerospace

Materials and processing breakthroughs have led to new military vehicle armour that is already protecting UK armed forces against unconventional warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

When dealing with grenades, mine blasts or gunfire, conventional ceramic vehicle armour has proven crucial in protecting armed forces against ballistic attack. However, war in Iraq and Afghanistan has brought new threats including unconventional warfare in the form of the ‘improvised explosive device’ or road-side bomb. Combating these devices has been the Ministry of Defence’s priority for a number of years and now a new armour system, developed in partnership between MOD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and UK-
based military technology developer NP Aerospace, is set to save even more lives.


CAMAC Armour was developed by combining reinforced fibre glass composites with ceramics and polymers to produce armour panels that are only 40% of the weight of equivalent steel armour and provide better ballistic protection compared to conventional ceramic armour systems. In the past, ceramic systems comprising large adjoining square or hexagonal tiles have been used to protect military vehicles during combat. The high compressive strengths of the tiles protected vehicles from individual impacts but because these tiles were also brittle, the resistance to repeated, close proximity strikes from machine gun-fire or road-side bombs was compromised.

To improve armour performance, armour scientists at Dstl first looked at how smaller, different-sized ceramic segments could be arranged within a resin to provide better protection. They then developed moulded composite panels comprising many hexagonal, ceramic segments, roughly the size of a thimble. The Dstl invention is different from other types of ceramic segment armour in the management of the shock-waves passing between neighbouring segments, improving resistance to repetitive impacts. The panels are also packaged in a very tough polymer composite.

Manufacturing the panel involves many stages. First the ceramic segment is moulded to the required dimensions, some 15% larger than the final piece. Secondly, this moulded piece is heat treated or ‘sintered’ in a high temperature furnace, during which time it hardens and shrinks to the required dimensions.

This process requires each ceramic segment within the panel to shrink to within a very tight engineering tolerance of only 0.04 mm. The sintered segments are then assembled into the panel geometry and cast within the resin. Dstl joined forces with NP Aerospace to tailor the military vehicle armour system for unconventional warfare including road-side bombs. Dstl has developed and advocated modularity in armour systems for many years. NP Aerospace has a long track record in the development of vehicles for hostile conditions and has responded to this in developing CAMAC armour to be highly modular and adaptable, enabling easy integration onto military vehicles.

Commercial success

Dstl patented its new material for military armour systems and licensed the technology to NP Aerospace. The system was developed in unprecedented timescales with the concept being developed and brought into service within 24 months of new threats emerging in Iraq. It has now been deployed on a range of UK military vehicles. NP Aerospace has won several contracts, totalling more than £100million, to manufacture and fit the armour system to military vehicles. The business has since expanded and is a major employer in the East Midlands.


The new Jaguar XJ 3 litre diesel is over 200 kg lighter than a conventional steel body XJ

The new Jaguar XJ 3 litre diesel is over 200 kg lighter than a conventional steel body XJ

The Jaguar XJ lightweight vehicle

Jaguar continues to pioneer the use of aluminium in the automotive sector. The latest demonstration of this is the new XJ, a lightweight executive saloon. Engineers at Jaguar Land Rover have significantly reduced the environmental impact of its new vehicles by using more lightweight and recycled material in its cars.


Aluminium weighs less than steel, so replacing steel components with aluminium parts is one of the most effective ways to reduce weight (up to 40%) in a vehicle body. With this in mind, the engineering team at Jaguar Land Rover have designed the body of the Jaguar XJ using this lightweight material, producing a volume production car some 200 kg lighter than comparable steel competitor models.

The new XJ body comprises up to 50% recycled aluminium and is based on a monocoque design that uses aluminium sheets as well as aluminium and magnesium castings and also aluminium profiles. The vehicle is assembled using aerospace cold joining technology rather than fusion welding. This eliminates waste water – normally used to cool the weld guns – during construction, and reduces electricity consumption by up to 90%.

In addition, engineers have optimised the weight and cost of the body; for example they have introduced a single-piece, lightweight inner door panel, saving 2.2 kg in weight reducing the number of door parts from 14 to 10, and cutting costs by more than 10%. The light-weight XJ models also use smaller, more efficient engines, which boosts fuel economy and cuts carbon dioxide emissions by more than 15% while maintaining vehicle performance. This could reduce the carbon dioxide emitted over the vehicle’s life by at least five tonnes.

Engineers now aim to design and manufacture future models without manufacturing prototypes. This not only saves money but also removes the carbon dioxide emissions generated by the test fleet. As part of the new XJ programme, engineers used Computer Aided Engineering to reduce the number of parts and joints, improving torsional stiffness and durability. More than half a million computer analyses were carried out the virtual XJ vehicle, generating some 1700 terra bytes of data while removing the need to make 27,000 tests on prototype vehicles.

Commercial success

Launched in 2010, the XJ follows 12 years of research and development. Initial sales are higher than the outgoing model, making it the market leader with over 30% of the UK luxury car market. The vehicle recently won the Top Gear Best Luxury Car award and What Car Best Green Luxury car award and has received more than 20 international awards to date. It is one of the first vehicles to have Life Cycle Analysis accreditation from the UK Vehicle Certification Agency.

Benefit to the Community

The 3.0L diesel XJ emits 184 g of carbon dioxide per km while some competing models emit over 200 g/km. The use of recycled materials and alternative construction techniques also minimise the overall environmental impact during manufacture and the vehicle’s life.

A lightweight series hybrid XJ demonstrator developed as part of a Technology Strategy Board project emits less than 100 g/km of carbon dioxide, acting as a test bed for future Jaguar Land Rover environmental initiatives. Engineers aim to increase the amount of recycled aluminium in future XJs to 75%, which would save an extra tonne of carbon dioxide per vehicle.


Cellular antenna systems generally use three sectors each covering 120°. The antenna for each sector is “cross polarised” and has two ports normally labelled + and – 45°. One UCU is required for each sector so there are usually three UCUs/cell site

Cellular antenna systems generally use three sectors each covering 120°. The antenna for each sector is “cross polarised” and has two ports normally labelled + and – 45°. One UCU is required for each sector so there are usually three UCUs/cell site

Radio frequency filter
Radio Design Ltd

Radio Design’s radio frequency filter allows network providers like Orange and T-Mobile to share mobile communications networks. The Universal Combiner Unit has been instrumental in the roll-out of mobile broadband networks across Europe.


A novel mobile communications device developed by UK-based wireless network product designers, Radio Design, can dramatically reduce the number of mobile phone masts required to operate a mobile telecommunications network. Now in use across the UK, the Universal Combiner Unit (UCU) has dramatically cut the operating costs and energy consumption of mobile telecommunications networks.

The UCU is a radio frequency filter combiner that allows mobile telecommunications operators to share common antenna infrastructure in the mobile network. The output of up to three base stations can be connected to a common antenna system, avoiding the need to install separate antennas or even an additional mobile phone mast at a single site. In addition, installing the UCU takes place at ground level, so engineers have no need to climb mobile phone masts.

When installed to a network, the filter is virtually invisible to the radio frequency signals that pass through it as insertion losses are extremely low, typically 0.2 dB in transmit and receive paths. However, the device still provides enough isolation between connecting base stations to prevent interference between them, so network performance is not degraded compared to separate antenna systems.

While the concept of the UCU is simple, designing the product presented significant challenges. In addition to minimising signal losses and interference, the UCU had to fit within and operate alongside the existing infrastructure at a site and withstand the rigours of outdoor operation.

To tackle this, Radio Design spent several years developing computer aided design tools that convert theoretical filter systems into actual 3D physical models. These can then be optimised for performance and mechanical layout.

In doing this, the business has integrated in-house design software with commercially available 3D mechanical and electromagnetic simulation tools. The end result is that Radio Design can turn a complex specification into an actual product in a matter of days, a process that used to take months.

Commercial Success

Radio design has shipped more than 30,000 units with the product deployed in over 10,000 cell sites in the last two years. The business has also developed a family of similar products that are installed in networks worldwide including the UK, France, Belgium, Spain, Poland, Hong Kong and India.

Mobile phone operators have been able to consolidate and share networks, increasing data capacity while reducing operating costs. For two operators sharing a common network in the UK, annual savings are around £100million a year.

Benefit to the community

Thanks to the UCU, the number of mobile phone mast sites across the UK has decreased from around 18,000, independently operated by two companies, to 12,400, shared between these operators. And because the operators have shared the antenna at these sites, no additional antennae and coaxial feeder cables have been installed, and mobile phone mast size has not increased. The sharing of these sites reduces energy consumption and the carbon footprint of both operators as well as minimising the visual impact for local communities.

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