MacRobert Award 2014


The Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award is the premier prize for UK innovation in engineering. It is awarded annually for an outstanding example of innovation, which has also achieved commercial success and is of benefit to the community. 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 across 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 three finalists for the award in alphabetical order. The winner will be announced at the Academy Awards Dinner on 2 July 2014.


SORS analyses the composition of chemicals sealed within any nonmetallic container without the need to open it, which has a range of potential applications including medical diagnostics and airport security.

Airport ScannerIt takes just five seconds to conduct airport liquid threat screening using the Insight100

In 2008, Cobalt Light Systems began to exploit patented work from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and create instruments that would build on the laboratory-based spectroscopic technique invented by Professor Pavel Matousek at STFC’s Central Laser Facility. The range of possible applications is vast and includes medical diagnostics, security, law enforcement, counterfeit detection, raw materials verification and pharmaceutical content uniformity.


Spatially offset Raman spectroscopy is a new method of extending Raman spectroscopy from a technique for which Sir C V Raman received the Nobel Prize in 1930, taking it from surface analysis to sub-surface. The technique allows both identification and quantification of materials without the need to open the vessel in which they are contained, whether this is a bulk liquid container or a drug gel capsule.

Raman spectroscopy has excellent specificity, and is the result of laser photons losing energy by exciting molecular bonds: these inelastic collisions produce a very weak spectrum which is molecularly unique. However, only one in a hundred million incident laser photons will contribute to the Raman spectrum, so it is extremely difficult to detect within the much larger spectrum of elastically scattered and fluorescence photons produced. SORS uniquely finds this ‘contents’ Raman spectrum buried within the blinding spectrum that comes from the ‘container’.

One successful application has been the Insight100. The underlying technology of this machine works using the technique of Raman spectroscopy. When combined with the optomechanics and highly advanced algorithms of SORS to distinguish between the container and its contents, the technology is able to identify chemical composition in seconds, and with greater reliability than any other existing technology.

The Insight100 has been recently deployed at hand baggage inspection at 65 European airports and at eight out of ten of the top European hubs. The security product protects passengers and aviation assets alike. It was a failed liquids bomb attack in 2006 that resulted in the introduction of the familiar ban on taking bottles of liquid over 100ml on aircraft. Training the detection capabilities of the instrument involved many trials of the system with improvised explosives, a new direction for the company. A further challenge for this training was to gather enough data from the huge variety of commercial goods to prove how very low the false alarm rate could go.


The security and pharmaceutical products that Cobalt produces are transforming the company and contributing to the UK economy: the systems are typically made up with 75% UK-sourced materials and the company has doubled its number of employees in the last year. Cobalt would like to see its capability contribute more widely to the safety of pharmaceuticals and for its potential use in early-stage breast cancer detection to make significant progress.

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OptaSense has drawn on almost five decades of the sonar/radar signal processing capability of its parent company QinetiQ to create a phase and amplitude coherent fibre optic Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) system.

Enabling the conversion of standard telecoms cables to an array of thousands of virtual microphones and geophones which feed back acoustic and seismic signals opens up the potential for almost any fibre optic cable to become a sensory system. Industries that can benefit from these advances include transport, asset security, border control and oil and gas.


Optasense has expanded the scope of backscatter signal technology, whereby any standard fibre-optic cable can be converted into a DAS system – effectively an intelligent listening device up to 50 kilometres in length. It is an information-based, realtime system that is able to monitor thousands of discrete locations at any one time.

The system detects any acoustic or seismic signal that strikes the fibre, causing minute strains in the fibre that can be directed back to the user, measured, and analysed by way of laser interrogation. An interrogator unit (IU) fires a laser beam into the cable and measures backscatter returns from naturally occurring imperfections in the cable. The resulting small strains generate subtle modulations of the backscatter that can then be measured by the IU.

This gives advance notice of potential threats such as leaks in pipelines and unplanned interruptions to transport systems as well as triggering alerts to pinpointing breaks in security systems or incursions at national borders. The system can be used above, on or below ground for multiple threat detection.


Optasense engineers

OptaSense engineers prepare a surface fibre for undertaking seismic readings

In just five years since its inception, OptaSense – a wholly-owned subsidiary of high-end technology company QinetiQ – has grown from a team of three to an organisation employing more than 150 staff with offices in Australia, Canada, Dubai and the US.

Its wide-ranging customer base includes world-leading oil and gas companies, security specialists and governments, protecting valuable national infrastructure from rail lines and oil wells, to airports and nuclear facilities. The company is expected to grow to exceed £100 million turnover in the next few years. This is supported by over £35 million of orders from Shell over the last few years.


The intelligent system solutions from OptaSense seek to prevent incidents happening rather than simply detecting when things go wrong, so customers across many business sectors are seeing long-term benefits from reduced operational and equipment costs as well as less disruption to their own customers.

Prevention also helps improve health and safety. Oil and gas companies, for example, are able to collect data without well intervention which is expected to deliver commercial as well as safety benefits. In 2013, OptaSense won the Special Meritorious Award for Engineering Innovation in Geosciences, recognising the impact of the company’s Vertical Seismic Profiling technology.

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Jet strike

The Rolls-Royce LiftSystem brings STOVL capability to the F-35B © Lockheed Martin

The Rolls-Royce LiftSystem™ is an aircraft propulsion system designed for use in the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35 Lightning II developed for the Joint Strike Fighter Programme.

LiftSystem technology builds on the experience gathered developing the Pegasus engine, which powered the Harrier jump jet, one of only two other production STOVL fighter aircraft. Around 3,000 F-35 aircraft are expected to be produced in three variants – a conventional fighter (the F-35A), the carrier-borne F-35C and the STOVL F-35B. This latter variant has the agility and versatility of the Harrier combined with supersonic capability.


The technology that gives the F-35B its STOVL capability is designed, developed and produced by Rolls-Royce, using its 50-year expertise in this field. It is conceptually different in design from its predecessor, the Pegasus, and incorporates significant innovations at a system, subsystem and component level.

The LiftSystem consists of three modules; a LiftFan providing vertical thrust at the forward end of the aircraft; a three-bearing swivel module redirecting main engine thrust from axial to vertical and two roll posts providing roll stability. The technology is contained within the airframe during conventional flight, improving the aerodynamic profile and stealth capabilities of the aircraft. It is powered solely by the main aircraft engine, and gives a significant improvement in thrust efficiency compared with earlier concepts. The F35B has almost twice the lifting capability of its predecessor while being able to travel faster and further.


The programme is a large contributor to the UK’s aerospace industry. It represents one of its most significant defence projects both in terms of employment and exports. It sustains approximately 800 jobs in the UK, and many more internationally. It has also been a key project for the academic and research communities, with direct contribution from eight UK universities in Rolls- Royce’s University Technology Centre network. In addition, it is helping inspire the next generation of engineers who are contributing to Rolls-Royce’s competitive edge.

The F-35B equipped with the Rolls-Royce LiftSystem entered into service in January 2012, and the fleet has now grown to nearly 50 aircraft, including five on the flight test programme. Over 400 F-35Bs are currently planned, with customer nations including the USA, the UK and Italy. The UK took delivery of its first F-35B in July 2012, and it will operate at the heart of the UK’s defence capability for decades to come.

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