In brief


Innovative incubator achieves first clinical use in the UK
In November, a new, neonatal incubator, developed and manufactured in Britain, was first used in a clinical setting in a UK hospital to help sustain a premature baby at St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey.

The affordable incubator, created by James Roberts, Founder and CEO of mOm Incubators, and his team, weighs just 20 kilograms and compacts to half its size, making it easy to store and transport. It has also been designed to be easily cleaned; has a replaceable infant compartment; and is energy efficient, so it can run off inconsistent voltage supplies and also has a backup battery. The incubator is designed for challenging low- and middle-income settings, and provides a more flexible option for neonatal care in the UK and other high-income countries.

One in 10 babies born around the world are premature and one million of them die every year. Three-quarters of these deaths are easily preventable through access to thermoregulation, or consistent warmth. However, only a small minority of premature babies have access to conventional incubators, which are regularly inoperable or discarded because of a lack of servicing and spare parts.

James commented: “Sustaining a child’s life in our incubator for the first time has been a humbling experience and a monumental step in transforming this dream into a practical reality. It is unacceptable that one million premature babies die each year, when most of these deaths can be easily prevented. An idea that was once scribbled down on paper now has the potential to impact many lives globally.”

The design is backed by Holly Branson, Virgin’s Chief Purpose and Vision Officer, and Sir James Dyson OM CBE FREng FRS. In 2014, James received the global James Dyson Award for his prototype and in 2015 won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Launchpad competition for the UK’s most promising engineering and technology entrepreneurs. He also joined the Academy’s Enterprise Hub SME Leaders programme in 2019 for coaching, business mentoring and leadership training and is now a Hub member.

Ana Avaliani, the Academy’s Director of Enterprise and Sustainable Development, said: “The solutions to today’s most complex economic and social challenges lie in the minds of the brightest engineering and tech entrepreneurs – people like James. At the Royal Academy of Engineering Enterprise Hub, we help them transform ideas into reality. We are thrilled to see the mOm incubator in clinical use in the UK.

The cost effective and compact incubator can be easily stored and transported (image of baby used with permission from St Peter’s Hospital NICU, Chertsey, and the parents with grateful thanks to both)

Sculpture engineered from 250-year-old air
During COP26, visitors to the Glasgow Science Centre were able to attend an exhibition centred around Antarctic air from 1765, inspired and informed by the urgent need to address the climate crisis.

Polar Zero, an immersive, science–engineering–art exhibition, features a cylindrical glass sculpture encasing an air sample from 1765 extracted from an Antarctic ice core and preserved within. Engineering expertise was critical to the artwork as it is the first time that anyone has attempted to extract ancient air from an ice core and encase it within a glass sculpture. Engineers from Arup devised a technique to make a casing with a void inside filled with fluid, which Robert Mulvaney, from the British Antarctic Survey, then injected the air into. 1765 is a crucial date, predating the Industrial Revolution, after which human activity began to fundamentally accelerate the growth of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The artworks also use Antarctic ice cores (cylinders of ice drilled out of an ice sheet or glacier) no longer required for research by the British Antarctic Survey. The ice cores contain information about past temperature, and many other aspects of the environment. The ice encloses small bubbles of air that contain a sample of the atmosphere, from which scientists can measure the past concentration of gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) in the atmosphere. The engineers’ job was to make sure that the ice didn’t disappear too quickly so that visitors could see and hear it dripping away very slowly. They used precise calculations and creative thinking to construct the right level of insulation while still allowing the visitors to get up close to the ice.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the British Antarctic Survey, Arup and the Royal College of Art (RCA), funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and is running until mid-December.

The RCA’s Wayne Binitie is an AHRC-funded PhD student and the artist behind Polar Zero.

The artworks featured in the Polar Zero exhibition, created by Wayne Binitie

Electric plane claims to be world's fastest
Rolls-Royce’s battery-powered aircraft, the Spirit of Innovation, has reached a top speed of 623 kilometres an hour, potentially making it the world’s fastest all-electric vehicle.

The aircraft reached a speed of 556 kilometres an hour over three kilometres, beating the existing record of 213 kilometres an hour, and set three world records in the process – also averaging 532 kilometres an hour over 15 kilometres and climbing to 3,000 metres in just 202 seconds. The results are being confirmed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, which certifies records for flight.

It was powered by a 400 kW electric powertrain and what Rolls-Royce says is the most power-dense propulsion battery pack ever assembled in aerospace.

The Spirit of Innovation in flight © Rolls-Royce

The Spirit of Innovation is part of the Accelerating the Electrification of Flight (ACCEL) project. Half of its funding is provided by the Aerospace Technology Institute, in partnership with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Innovate UK. Rolls-Royce also worked with aviation storage specialist Electroflight, which developed the battery, and automotive powertrain supplier YASA.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said: “Rolls-Royce’s revolutionary Spirit of Innovation aircraft is yet more proof of the UK’s enviable credentials when it comes to innovation. This record will show the potential of electric flight and help to unlock the technologies that could make it part of everyday lif

Engineering in the extreme

Two young engineers have been awarded Smeaton Medals for their outstanding work in disaster relief in some of the world’s most hostile environments. Organising rescues and follow-up work after events such as earthquakes and hurricanes, they have demonstrated how engineers can use their skills to really ‘make a difference’ in the most difficult and dangerous circumstances.

Josh leading damage assessment at a disaster siteDr Josh Macabuag
In 2015 an earthquake in Nepal left 8,500 people dead and several hundred thousand homeless. Engineer Josh Macabuag was part of the team from UK charity SARAID (Search and Rescue Assistance in Disasters) sent to rescue survivors from the collapsed buildings in the disaster’s immediate aftermath. By then, he had learned that a disaster’s impact goes beyond lives lost. Damage assessment is needed, so people can return to buildings. After the team had demobilised, Josh conducted damage assessments of key hospitals, schools and government buildings. In one case, his assessment enabled a hospital to reopen so that patients, who had been sleeping outside for fear of aftershocks, could re-enter. But he recognised that the problem was much greater than the 20 buildings he could reopen.

When he was deployed as part of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism (EUCPM) team following 2019’s earthquakes in Albania, he recognised a critical gap in coordination of damage assessments. He persuaded government ministers that engineers should start the process, rather than just the immediate search-and-rescue phase. He initiated and led coordination of a new concept – the Damage Assessment Coordination Centre (DACC), operated jointly by the EUCPM team, the UN Damage Assessment and Coordination Team, and USAID. The DACC had two jobs: to help the Albanian government set up its own damage assessment centre with its own engineers, and to coordinate international input. Working with Albanian engineers, 185 engineers from 18 countries quickly assessed around 39,000 buildings so that those deemed habitable could be reoccupied.

In the wake of the 2020 Beirut Port explosion that killed 215 people, Josh led the UK support team from SARAID on a search-and-rescue mission – this time working from the UK rather than onsite. The team set up a DACC in Beirut for follow-up assessments. Having demonstrated its high impact in two disasters, he persuaded the UN’s International Search and Rescue Advisory Group to officially adopt the concept as an international standard. An initial rapid assessment can be carried out by a trained engineer in just 20 to 30 minutes per building, answering questions such as: what is the level of damage? Are there issues with the foundations? Are there any other safety issues such as risk of landslides? This may be followed by a more thorough engineering assessment, which requires an engineer with considerable experience in the field.

Career path
Josh graduated from the University of Oxford in 2007, volunteering on low-cost housing and groundwater extraction in rural South Africa before working as a structural design engineer in the UK and UAE. Meanwhile he maintained his commitment to overseas development by authoring a paper on earthquake-proofing buildings in Nepal, co-writing an ‘engineer’s toolkit for a developing world’, and as part of an investigation team after the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami.

Josh is now an independent consultant. He advises the World Bank on disaster risk mitigation and insurance companies on catastrophe risk modelling. He is involved in training, lecturing and producing videos to inspire others and transfer knowledge, and continues to deploy after critical events, including Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean in 2017 and the Haiti earthquake in 2021.

Vita at Agok hospital’s first completed ward

Vita Sanderson
Vita Sanderson’s most challenging role so far was with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) managing a 60-strong team constructing a hospital at Agok in the remote, disputed and frequently war-torn Abyei, between Sudan and South Sudan in 2017 to 2018. The 160-bed hospital included surgical and maternity facilities, a specialised malnutrition ward, and even snakebite treatment facilities. It had to be designed to withstand the region’s extreme heat, high winds and heavy rainfall, with foundations appropriate for the notorious ‘black cotton soil’ – a clay-rich soil that shrinks and cracks in the dry season and expands when wet. It also had to be completely self-sufficient for water supply, power generation and sanitation.

The work involved detailed design, procurement (mostly from Europe, an eight-week journey involving shipping to Mombasa and then by slow and tortuous roads to Abyei) as well as construction of the hospital and all its supporting infrastructure. Construction of the six buildings had to be phased carefully to allow an orderly transition from the primitive tented hospital it was replacing. The hospital was clad in insulated panelling – to protect from the 45°C midday temperatures. It serves a vast catchment area, with some patients walking for many days to attend. As one measure of its success, infection rates in the maternity ward were halved on opening.

Career path
Vita graduated from Imperial College London in 2011 and worked for consulting engineers Elliott Wood while taking time off for voluntary work overseas, qualifying as a chartered engineer in 2015. She realises that she could not have taken on such a challenging role as the Agok hospital without her early training as a structural engineer, largely on the retrofit of existing buildings in London. It helped her develop engineering skills, as well as an understanding of how things work and fit together, how to organise things and develop a programme to get from here to there, and – above all – problem-solving skills and the confidence to make decisions. One of her projects was The Ned, a complex conversion of a derelict 1920s City of London bank into a modern hotel.

Meanwhile she had been volunteering for humanitarian work, which led to her taking leave to go to Bangladesh following the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse to conduct structural assessments of some of the hundreds of other garment factories. Vita left Elliott Wood to manage the construction of UNICEF ‘transitional learning centres’ in a remote area of the Himalayas following the 2015 Nepal earthquake, ensuring the buildings would survive a future earthquake. She joined MSF in 2017, initially in south-eastern Ukraine, retrofitting existing clinics for a new hepatitis C programme, before moving to South Sudan.

Returning to the UK in late 2018, she joined Arup’s International Development team where she has managed: a retrofitting programme for 250 schools in Western Nepal; a large school reconstruction programme in Peru; school design guidance for Bhutan; andwork in Zimbabwe following Cyclone Idai. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, she developed guidance for implementing rapidly deployed treatment and isolation centres in poor areas. She has also been working with the World Health Organization and others to provide remote support for health facilities in the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, close to the Myanmar border.

Vita was elected to MSF’s UK board of trustees in 2019, which she does alongside her work at Arup. She is also a member MSF’s operation board in Amsterdam. Additionally, she has led research into low-cost seismic construction at the University of Bristol, guest lectures at Warwick University and is contributing to an update of RedR’s Engineering in Emergencies textbook.

The Smeaton Medal
The Smeaton Medal recognises early- or mid-career engineers for ‘achievement in hostile or extreme environments’, which might for example include storms, pandemics, space, earthquakes, cyberspace, subsea, or cold regions.

Awarded by the Smeatonian Society of Civil Engineers, the world’s oldest engineering society founded in 1772, the medal was inspired by the works of co-founder John Smeaton: his Eddystone Lighthouse represented a huge engineering achievement in one of the most challenging environments of his era.

2021 marks the society’s 250th anniversary year. Its President is HRH The Princess Royal, who has demonstrated a strong affinity with engineers, as well as an understanding and appreciation of their work.

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