Finalists named in UK’s most prestigious engineering awards

Posted on 28 Apr 2014 by Callum Bentley

The finalists for the UK’s most prestigious engineering award, The MacRobert Award have been announced.

Three UK companies: OptaSense, the UK company creating the ‘Earth’s Nervous System’; Cobalt Light Systems, an SME using materials science to fight terrorism; and Rolls-Royce, the engineering giant behind the world’s first vertical take-off system for a supersonic fighter jet, have been revealed as this year’s finalists.

Synonymous with spotting the ‘next big thing’ in the technology sector, the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award is the UK’s longest running national prize for engineering. It identifies outstanding innovation with proven commercial promise and tangible societal benefit.

Previous winners of the award include EMI Ltd’s CT Scanner in 1972, a technology that can now be found in almost every hospital in the developed world. Cambridge Display Technologies won in 2002 for its light emitting polymer displays, which are expected to be used increasingly in mobile applications, televisions and lighting. The judges predicted that last year’s winner, software SME RealVNC, could be a billion dollar company within five years.

OptaSense has developed technology that can turn any existing fibre-optic cable into a highly sensitive real-time microphone. With millions of miles of fibre optic cable underground and undersea around the world, the ability to turn this into a listening device has enormous potential in terms of security monitoring and other applications. It is already being used to improve the safety of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), for example, and to save the lives of soldiers deployed in hostile environments.

Cobalt Light Systems has pioneered a means of identifying the chemical composition of solids or liquids sealed within any non-metallic container without opening it, which they have developed into an airport security scanner that will enable airports to remove the existing hand-luggage liquid ban through phased implementation over the next few years in response to regulation. The fundamental science behind the device could also be used for non-invasive cancer screening, detecting counterfeit goods, and food analysis in the future.

Rolls-Royce has developed the world’s first short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) system capable of powering a supersonic aircraft, the Joint Strike Fighter. The aircraft has been developed by the US Department of Defense and represents the largest defence programme of all time. It is the successor of the famous Harrier jet, and its LiftSystem™ is so powerful it could lift 17 Mini cars.

John Robinson FREng, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said, “Each of this year’s finalists has demonstrated excellent innovation and technical expertise but, perhaps more importantly, the significance of how this is being applied for the benefit of society is exceptional.

“These three UK organisations, each of a different size and stage of business development, truly represent the breadth of the UK’s engineering capability and its global importance. They are first-rate examples of the economic importance of the nation’s engineering sector, which the Academy continues to promote through its Engineering for Growth campaign.”

The winner will be announced on July 2 at the Academy’s awards dinner at the Royal Opera House in London.