Innovative engineers – apply here! The MacRobert Award 2001


The MacRobert Award is the UK’s premier prize for innovation in engineering. We take a look at this year’s finalists and discover the remarkable story of the family after whom the award is named.

Ingenuity is alive and well in British engineering as this year’s finalists for the UK’s top award for engineering innovation – The Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award – were announced in July. ‘Standards are high but it is also clear that there are lots of innovators beavering away who don’t get to hear about the award and what it can mean to them both financially and as an aid to marketing,’ says Sir John Cullen FREng, chairman of the judging panel.

The finalists, who demonstrated their products to The Academy’s Senior Fellow, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, at The Academy’s AGM in July, are:

  • Bombardier Aerospace of Belfast. An engineering team has developed an aero-engine natural blockage thrust reverser – an air brake – which is both more efficient and more environmentally beneficial than conventional technology.

  • Sensaura Ltd of Hayes, Middlesex. Engineers and scientists have developed three-dimensional positional audio technology which can be delivered through conventional loudspeakers or headphones. It is so efficient that this technology is replacing stereo, becoming the new audio standard for PC and multimedia technologies.

  • Southern Water plc with its de Hoxar spiral separator. This is a remarkable new system for cleaning wastewater. It is 30 times smaller than conventional processes and more efficient, so that the treatment system saves both space and money.

Exacting standards

The Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award panel of Fellows seeks to identify world-leading engineering developments which demonstrate innovation, successful commercial application and which are of benefit to the community. Comprising as it does Britain’s most eminent engineers in all disciplines, The Academy panel sets a very high standard. The fact that it has short-listed only three finalists this year is put down to the increasing pressures many entrepreneurs, big or small, face at work. And also, perhaps, a wrongly held belief that a company has to be linked to The Academy in some way to make a submission.

Application forms should be submitted by the end of February each year. The judging panel assesses the applications and visits those on a shortlist, with finalists announced in July. The winner receives a gold medal and a £50,000 award from Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace in November and has a six-month-long exhibition at the Science Museum with its 100,000 visitors per month. Rules and conditions for application, plus details of how to apply, can be found on The Academy’s web site at


‘The £50,000 cash prize goes to the individuals,’ says Sir John Cullen, ‘but I believe it is the prestige and marketing opportunity attached to winning that is the real value. It is open to any British company or laboratory that fulfils the criteria. Ingenia has a wide readership at senior levels and I hope that those involved in industry and R&D will encourage people, perhaps colleagues, to go for it.’

The award is now in its 32nd year. Past winners include Pilkington Brothers Ltd for the Triplex laminated windscreen (1978), Netlon Ltd for the development of high-strength polymer grids used in civil engineering and construction (1984), and Norton Healthcare Ltd for the development of the Easi-Breathe asthma inhaler (1998).

Experience in practice

In 1997, Whipp & Bourne Ltd, Rochdale, a division of FKI Engineering plc, won the award for its gas-filled vacuum recloser, an innovative circuit breaker for use on overhead power lines. Steve Lane, Engineering Director and leader of their successful team, recalls what winning the award meant, not only personally but also to the company. ‘I had had the idea for this circuit breaker for some time. In 1992 I created the three-man team at Whipp & Bourne and together we worked it through to commercial production.

‘Our engineering group chairman realised we had developed something really innovative and with proven commercial potential. He had heard about the MacRobert Award and felt we ought to put in for it both as a thank you to the development team and as a means of promoting the FKI Group. Obviously it was a personal thrill to see one’s idea recognised by the most eminent engineers in the country. In addition, winning the award gave the company a terrific boost in our marketing. The GVR became established as market leader in the UK and winning the award provided a seal of approval when going into overseas markets.’

This year’s finalists

Bombardier Aerospace, Belfast

The innovation: Natural-blockage thrust reverser for turbofan nacelle.

The team: Mike Hatrick, Keith Campbell, Edwin Beattie, Finbarr McEvoy, Joel Bennett.

A nacelle is the aerodynamic structure that surrounds an aircraft engine. It often includes a thrust reverser to help stop an aircraft after landing, particularly on slippery or icy runways or during an aborted take-off. However, a thrust reverser adds weight, reduces engine efficiency in cruise, increases noise and adds to maintenance because it requires more moving parts which add to wear and tear.

Conventional designs use a translating cowl with associated blocker doors and linkages to block the fan duct engine thrust and re-direct it forward, thereby creating reverse thrust. By reshaping the fan duct this design blocks the air flow naturally by a simple translation of the cowl, with no need for additional mechanisms.

As well as the obvious advantages of reduced part count, weight and increased reliability, this concept generates more reverse thrust than other designs. This means that in emergencies the aircraft can be stopped more quickly, thereby improving safety, whilst in normal operation the required reverse thrust can be achieved with lower engine speed. This leads to longer engine life, less fuel burn, less noise and less NOx emission. The combination of fan duct reshaping and a simpler reverser structure provides benefits for the aircraft during flight as engine fan noise emission is reduced.

Other design features lead to easier maintenance. Engine changeover times are significantly reduced, nacelle installation is simplified, and with the addition of a counterbalanced nacelle opening mechanism, a mechanic can gain full access to the engine with one hand in less than two minutes.

The device has been passed as airworthy and is installed on the Bombardier Aerospace CRJ700 and CRJ900 regional jets. It is already in operation with regional airlines in Europe and North America. Ease of maintenance, reliability and fast turnaround times are crucial to regional operators, and this product has been designed specifically to address their needs. They and engine manufacturers are showing keen interest in the economic and environmental benefits of this development, both for regional aircraft and others.

Sensaura Ltd, Hayes, Middlesex

The innovation: Sensaura 3-D positional audio.

The team: Dr Alastair Sibbald, David Monteith, Richard Clemow, Peter Clare, Adam Philp.

This technology, based on huma n spatial hearing processes, enables audio to be positioned in space around the listener in all three dimensions, using just a single pair of ordinary loudspeakers or stereo headphones. An article featuring Sensaura’s ideas was published in the August 2000 edition of Ingenia. Sensaura technology is based on the physics of human spatial hearing and comprises a sophisticated suite of software which can synthesise a ‘virtual world’ around the listener, including three-dimensional placement of dozens of sound-emitting objects, effects that indicate their proximity and size, and a detailed and realistic acoustic ‘virtual environment’.

Noting the ability of the human ear and brain to recognise and process directional sound, Dr Sibbald and his colleagues set out to understand the underlying processes and synthesise them. They developed a spatially accurate artificial ear technology, now known as Sensaura Digital Ear™, and then, from this, they created a comprehensive suite of signal-processing algorithms, which can be implemented on digital signal processor (DSP) chips.

Many consumer products could benefit from the addition of immersive, w rap-around sound which we take for granted in everyday life. These include the multi-million dollar computer games market, where Sensaura is becoming the de facto standard, despite the fact that this is a particularly difficult market to penetrate. At less than $2 per chip, in comparison to $100 for an additional sound-card, PC manufacturers can supply 3-D audio as a built-in feature, rather than an additional-cost option. Sensaura chips are installed in more than 45 million PCs and Sensaura licensees now supply around 60% of the PC audio chip market worldwide.

Sensaura is featured on leading computer hardware such as the VideoLogic Sonic Fury™ sound-card, the forthcoming Xbox™ video game console from Microsoft, and it is now available on the Sony PlayStation®2.

Future platforms for the technology include portable devices and mobile phones. The ability to hear a caller’s voice as if it were a real voice, only a few feet away, for example, may encourage mobile-phone users to speak more quietly and naturally and not inflict their conversation on their travelling companions!

Southern Water plc, Brighton

The innovation: The de Hoxar spiral separator.

The individual: David de Hoxar.

The de Hoxar spiral separator is a compact, gravity settlement device now in use in both wastewater and potable water treatment works. Its novel design makes it smaller and more efficient than conventional processes, saving space and money on restricted sites. It also has applications outside the water industry.

Typically, a lamella separator has a stationary pack of flat plates suspended in a large rectangular tank across which the wastewater passes, depositing solid waste on to the plates. The plates in the spiral separator are in the form of spiral fins fitted inside a circular tank. As the spiral rotates, the fins act as separators, sending cleaned water to the top of the tank where it can be drawn for further treatment and waste matter to the base for easier disposal.

Developed by principal engineer David de Hoxar, the device went into trial in 1993. A typical separator has a footprint of five-metre diameter, which is a mere 3% of the footprint of a conventional settlement tank and about 30 times smaller than the next-closest compact technology. It produces a thickened sludge which can often eliminate one stage of downstream processing. The plates themselves are made from GRP (Glass-Reinforced Plastic); each pack comprises a large number of platelets for ease of assembly and replacement.

The spiral separator has now been installed at three sites, two on the South coast and one in East Anglia. In addition to its use for water treatment, it is being trialed for industrial use. It has proved successful on wastewater from a food processing factory and a full-size separator will treat such effluent in East Anglia later this summer. A licensee is tendering for water treatment plants in other countries where land is also at a premium.

The winner of this year’s MacRobert Award will be announced in November.

John Robson

The Royal Academy of Engineering

The MacRobert Story

On 30 June 1941 an American widow living in Scotland received the news that her third and youngest son, 24-year-old Iain, had been reported missing while serving as a pilot in the RAF. He had been searching for the crew of a bomber who were believed to be floating in a dinghy near Flamborough Head; neither his body nor the plane he was flying were ever found. This tragedy robbed her of her last surviving child. Iain’s older brothers Alasdair and Roderick had also been killed while piloting aircraft: Alasdair three years earlier in peacetime and Roderick just one month earlier while leading an attack on a German aerodrome.

Rachel MacRobert had no other family in the UK. It would not have been surprising if she had chosen to pack her bags and return to her native Massachusetts. But she did not. Barely a month after Iain’s death the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, received from her a cheque for £25,000 and a remarkable letter.

… It is my wish to make a mother’s immediate reply, in the way that I know would also be my boys’ reply. – Attacking, striking sharply, straight to the mark – the gift of £25,000 – to buy a bomber to carry on their work in the most effective way. This expresses my reaction on receiving the news about my sons.

I am proud to read what you say about their work. I never doubted but that they would do their duty.

They would be glad that their mother replied for them, and helped to strike a blow at the enemy. So I feel that a suitable name for the bomber would be “MACROBERT’S REPLY”. Might it carry the MacRobert Crest, or simply our badge – a frond of bracken and an Indian Rose crossed?

Let it be used where it is most needed. May good fortune go with those who fly it!

I have no more sons to wear the Badge, or carry it in the fight … If I had ten sons, I know they would all have followed that line of duty.

It is with a mother’s pride that I enclose my cheque … and with it goes my sympathy to those mothers who have also lost sons, and gratitude to all mothers whose sons so gallantly carry on the fight.

Lady MacRobert went on to fund the purchase of four Hurricanes, three of which were named after her sons. In 1943 she established a number of charitable trusts, initially focused on providing support for members of the armed forces but later expanded to provide for a wide range of charitable giving.

Her husband had been Sir Alexander MacRobert Bt, founder of the British India Corporation. She was his second wife and much younger than him (there were almost 30 years between them). Sir Alexander was made a Baronet in 1922, eleven years after their marriage, but sadly did not have the opportunity to enjoy his title. He died later in 1922, leaving his 38- year-old widow to bring up their three young sons. All developed the great love of flying which was to lead to their tragic deaths.

Lady MacRobert lived until 1954 and saw the MacRobert Trust established and flourishing. She was buried in Scotland in a ceremony marked by the fly-past of nine RAF Meteor jets.

In 1967 the Trustees decided to set up an annual award for an outstanding contribution to innovation in the fields of engineering and technology. So the MacRobert Award was born. It was originally administered by the Council of Engineering Institutions (CEI) with assistance from the Royal Society. In 1980 the role of the former CEI was taken over by The Fellowship of Engineering, now The Royal Academy of Engineering, and our story ends.

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