Engineering science is not just aimed at writing a paper for a journal – it has as its goal the aim of being applied in real life and is therefore distinct from science, Professor Sir Michael Brady told the Royal Academy of Engineering this week. Giving the Academy’s New Year Lecture on Monday 11 January, Sir Michael used his own field of medical imaging to illustrate the importance of commercialisation in enabling and driving progress in engineering science.
Sir Michael, BP Professor of Information Engineering at the University of Oxford, also received the Academy’s Whittle Medal for outstanding and sustained achievement which has contributed to the well-being of the nation – this year’s theme is engineering innovations in healthcare.
With his fifth new company, Matakina, poised to improve dramatically the quality of breast cancer screening, Sir Michael is well placed to talk about the pleasure (and pain) of taking ideas out of the lab and developing them in the real world. Matakina’s Volpara™ technology will be submitted for FDA approval this month, over a decade after he and Ralph Highnam developed an algorithm that can model the complex physics of a mammogram image to quantify breast density, which is the key risk factor for breast cancer. In the meantime the idea had languished, ahead of its time, as part of a related technology taken over by Siemens.
Sir Michael’s first enterprise, Guidance Ltd, was formed in 1991 at the end of a GEC project to develop free-ranging mobile robots – when the industrial funding came to an end the team decided to continue the work on their own and Guidance now supplies 70 per cent of the US factory robot market – about 2,000 vehicles. They also make the unique SOLO offender tracker, combining GPS, smart processing and a high-performance battery with an optical fibre anti-tamper strap.
“Science has many diverse aims,” he says, “not least the elucidation of basic principles and novel methods. Most scientific research, particularly in universities, has as its final product a paper or monograph. Engineering science has the extra dimension of seeking to be applied, and this is a dimension I have continually sought to develop.
“Medical image analysis demands a fruitful relationship between engineers, clinicians, and industry so that developments can progress from the white board to the clinic and to economic success. For my work this means formulating and exploiting fundamental physics, engineering, and biology models to ensure software systems that work 99.9% of the time 24/7.”
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Notes for editors
Named after Britain’s jet engine genius, the Sir Frank Whittle Medal was first awarded in 2001 to the creator of the world-wide web, Professor Tim Berners-Lee OBE FREng FRS for his achievements in communication. In 2009 it was awarded to Arup Director Peter Head OBE FREng for his efforts to deliver an environmentally sustainable built environment in a rapidly urbanising world.
Professor Sir Michael Brady FREng FRS FMedSci FIET FInstP FBCS is BP Professor of Information Engineering at the University of Oxford. Professor Brady's degrees are in mathematics (BSc and MSc from Manchester University, and PhD from the Australian National University). He was appointed Senior Research Scientist of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in 1980, and helped found its world famous robotics laboratory. In 1985, he left MIT to take up a newly created Professorship in Information Engineering. Professor Brady is the author of over 550 articles and 24 patents in computer vision, robotics, medical image analysis, and artificial intelligence, and the author or editor of ten books, including: Robot Motion (MIT Press 1984), Robotics Science (MIT Press 1989) and Images and Artefacts of the Ancient World (British Academy, 2005). He was awarded the IEE Faraday Medal for 2000 and the IEEE Third Millennium Medal for the UK. He was awarded the Henry Dale Prize by the Royal Institution in 2005. He was knighted in the New Year honours list for 2003.
Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.
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