Three UK companies: OptaSense, the UK company creating the 'Earth's Nervous System'; Cobalt Light Systems, an SME using cutting-edge 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 for the most prestigious UK engineering award.

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.

In 1972, for example, the award recognised the extraordinary potential of EMI Ltd's CT Scanner, a technology which 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.

This year, judges have shortlisted three outstanding candidates from the UK's thriving engineering sector. QinetiQ-owned OptaSense, SME Cobalt, and engineering icon Rolls-Royce are all competing for a gold medal, a £50,000 cash prize, and the most prestigious engineering award in the UK. The winner will be announced on 2 July 2014 at the Academy's Awards Dinner at the Royal Opera House in London.

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 many 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 2014 finalists:

OptaSense - creating the 'Earth's Nervous System'

OptaSense, a QinetiQ-owned company, 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 perimeter security monitoring, fracking safety, traffic management, rail protection and more.

Sensitive enough to detect footsteps, vehicles, digging, or even a helicopter passing overhead, the technology is already being used as a means of advanced security monitoring for perimeters and assets, such as in the military where it is saving soldiers' lives, and in the oil and gas industry where it can prevent illegal 'hot-tapping' of oil pipelines and precisely detect and locate leaks, saving millions of pounds per incident.

The technology can also be used to monitor the hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") process, which is increasingly used to recover oil and gas from shale. Fracking has proven controversial due to concerns about current limitations in understanding what effect it has on the surrounding rock, but OptaSense's down-hole monitoring system improves operators' awareness of potential issues in real-time for rapid response, and can detect microseismic activity in or close to the wellbore enabling safe shutdown if required.

OptaSense's technology is also being used by the rail industry. By utilising existing trackside fibre optic cabling, the technology can save lives by detecting children on the tracks, rock-fall or trees on the line, and can also prevent copper theft, all of which are estimated to cost the British economy £1bn per year. Over the coming years, the data provided by the system could also help to keep passengers more readily up to date on the timeliness of services.

The highly sensitive acoustic monitoring system developed by OptaSense could even replace current traffic monitoring systems as a significantly cheaper alternative. By listening to traffic behaviors through existing roadside fibre optic cables, the system can pick up on traffic incidents, congestion, and even identify and precisely locate potholes.

OptaSense's core technology exploits a phenomenon caused when light is sent down a fibre optic cable, which is known as Rayleigh Backscattering. Noise or vibrations near the fibre changes the Rayleigh backscattering and, by measuring this change, the original sound signal can be recreated. This makes the fibre optic cable a virtual microphone. OptaSense combines this with highly advanced algorithms to analyse the motions it detects and translate it into immediately useful data. The potential applications of the system are almost limitless, and its potential is on the cusp of being fully realised globally to become the closest thing to the 'Earth's Nervous System'.

Magnus McEwen-King, Managing Director of OptaSense, said, "We are extremely pleased to be nominated as a finalist for such a prestigious engineering innovation award. The technical team at OptaSense have pioneered the development of distributed acoustic sensing and are recognised as world leaders in this field. We firmly believe this British technology will become the Earth's Nervous System, protecting the majority of the global energy and transport arteries, ensuring a safer and more efficient movement of people and product around the world."

Team members: Magnus McEwen-King, Managing Director; Chris Minto, Operations Director; David Hill, Chief Technology Officer; Jon Richards, Research and Development Director; Andrew Lewis, MD Centre of Excellence.

Cobalt Light Systems - cutting edge materials science fighting terrorism

Cobalt Light Systems has developed a means of analysing the composition of chemicals sealed within any non-metallic container without opening it, providing detailed and exceptionally reliable results in just five seconds. Having initially used this technique to help pharmaceutical companies verify the quality of medicines, Cobalt has now applied it to a security machine, the Insight100, which will enable airports to remove the existing hand-luggage liquid ban through phased implementation over the next few years, in line with pending EU regulations.

The hand luggage liquid restrictions were introduced in 2006 following what officials described as a threat from liquid explosives. Passengers boarding planes in EU countries are currently allowed to carry within their hand luggage liquids in containers no more than 100ml in capacity. The Insight100 system can analyse bottles up to three litres, in order to determine if they contain anything considered a threat, without having to open them.

The machine shines a laser at the container, and the spectrum of light returned is then cross-checked against those collated on a library of threats. While previous plans to remove the liquid restrictions have been delayed due to concerns about the robustness of technology available at the time, the introduction of the new Insight100 has proven a game-changer. It has recently been deployed in eight of the top 10 EU airports including Heathrow and Gatwick, and a total of 65 airports in Europe have introduced the system since January 2014.

While offering exceptionally reliable prevention of security threats and terrorism associated with onboard liquids, the Insight100 means airports can improve convenience for passengers by phasing out the existing liquid restrictions. The technology's reliability and low false alarm rate also significantly reduces the cost associated with delays, missed flights, confiscations and extra personnel required to manage current security processes.

While the airport security application takes off, Cobalt is also exploring the potential of its innovation in other areas such as non-invasive cancer screening, detecting counterfeit goods, food analysis, law enforcement, and more.

The Insight100's underlying technology - first developed conceptually by Cobalt's Chief Scientific Officer in a true 'Eureka' moment - works using the technique of Raman spectroscopy. When combined with highly advanced algorithms to distinguish between the container and its contents, the technology is able to identify the chemical composition in seconds, and with greater reliability than any other existing system.

Cobalt Light Systems is an SME based in Oxfordshire. It was established in 2008 as a spin-out from the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Paul Loeffen, Chief Executive Officer, said, "Being selected as a finalist for the prestigious MacRobert Award is an incredible accolade for the team at Cobalt Light Systems. It is hugely satisfying to see an academic discovery from a UK laboratory undergo several stages of innovation ending with deployment at international airports to enhance passenger security. The development of the Insight100 has been a multi-disciplinary engineering effort on very tight timescales and has culminated in dramatic commercial success over the last year."

Team members: Paul Loeffen, Chief Executive Officer; Pavel Matousek, Chief Scientific Officer; Stuart Bonthron, VP Product Development; Guy Maskall, Data Scientist; Craig Tombling, Chief Operating Officer.

Rolls-Royce - LiftSystem for the world's first supersonic vertical take-off jet

Rolls-Royce has developed the world's first short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) system capable of powering a supersonic aircraft. The LiftSystem is designed to be used in the F-35B STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, which has been developed by the US Department of Defense and its allies, represents the largest defence programme of all time.

The engineering challenge for the F-35B LiftSystem cannot be overstated. From the whole system concept to individual components and even manufacturing and testing techniques, the Rolls-Royce LiftSystem represents the culmination of 50 years of sustained innovation and technical excellence, which started with the famous Harrier jets, to create the ultimate fighter jet powered lift solution.

The capabilities offered by the LiftSystem make operations considerably safer for pilots, and its performance is unmatched - one pilot said, "...when you press that 'hover' button it's as if engineering and electronics have overcome the laws of physics."

The Joint Strike Fighter is only the third STOVL aircraft ever to go into production. The previous two aircraft, both subsonic, are the British Harrier and the Russian Yak-38. This STOVL LiftSystem is fundamentally different from previous designs, consisting of three modules: a LiftFan to provide vertical thrust, a 3-Bearing Swivel Module (3BSM) to redirect the engine thrust from axial to vertical, and Roll Posts to provide roll stability.

The LiftSystem powered Joint Strike Fighter has almost twice the lifting capability of a Harrier jet, while being able to travel faster and further. The new aircraft will place the UK MoD at the forefront of fighter technology, replacing the ageing fleet of Tornados and the now-retired Harrier fleet. The Joint Strike Fighter will give the Royal Air Force a multi-role all weather, day and night capability, able to operate from well-established land bases, deployed locations or the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers.

The first Joint Strike Fighter equipped with the Rolls-Royce LiftSystem entered service in January 2012, and the fleet has now grown to 42. Despite an extremely challenging financial environment, with severe cuts to defence spending by governments around the world, the programme is currently scheduled to generate orders for around 400 F-35B aircraft. This exceeds the initial production run for the Harrier by over 25%.

The programme is a large contributor to the UK's aerospace industry, representing one of the most significant defence projects in terms of employment and exports. The LiftSystem programme has sustained and created approximately 800 jobs in the UK to date, including development partnerships with eight UK universities and more than 20 UK companies in the Rolls-Royce supply chain. It also currently contributes over £60 million per annum to the UK economy through exports, and this is forecast to rise considerably as production volumes increase.

The success of the LiftSystem saw the Joint Strike Fighter enter service in the US in 2012, but the legacy of the innovation and new know-how is already being put to good use by Rolls-Royce in improving performance in the civil airline sector.

Jon Wandless, LiftSystem Chief Engineer 2011-2012, said, "Every day on this programme I have been amazed at the ingenuity, the intellect, and the sheer hard work of all the engineers who have created the LiftSystem. It's been an honour as a Chief Engineer to be part of such an iconic programme and lead such dedicated people."

Team members: Mike Buller, Chief Engineer LiftSystem 1998-2001 (retired); Phil Burkholder, Executive Vice President of Engineering & Technology, Defence (Chief Engineer LiftSystem 2002-2005); Mark Wilson, COO LibertyWorks (Chief Engineer LiftSystem 2005-2009); Gareth Jones, Chief Engineer Trent 1000 (Chief Engineer LiftSystem 2009-2011); Jon Wandless, Chief Engineer Trent 900 (Chief Engineer LiftSystem 2011-2012).

Notes for editors

  1. The MacRobert Award. First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award is widely regarded as the most coveted in the industry. Founded by the MacRobert Trusts, the Award is now presented by the Royal Academy of Engineering after a prize fund was established with donations from the MacRobert Trusts, the Academy and British industry.
    The MacRobert Award

    Previous winners include EMI Ltd, who in 1972 developed the CT Scanner, a vital medical device that can now be found in almost every hospital in the developed world. In 2002 Cambridge Display Technologies won the MacRobert Award for its light emitting polymer displays, which are now used extensively in televisions and smart phones. Last year's winner was software company RealVNC, which judges predicted could be a billion dollar company within five years.

    The judging panel for the MacRobert Award 2014 is as follows:
  • John Robinson FREng (Chair)
    Chairman, Abbeyfield Society; previously Chairman and Chief Executive of Smith and Nephew plc; Chairman, George Wimpey plc, Railtrack plc, Low and Bonar plc, UK Coal plc and Consort Medical plc; Operating Partner, Duke Street Capital
  • Keith Davis
    Chairman, The MacRobert Trust; formerly Director, Strategy and Planning, the Royal Academy of Engineering
  • Professor Nicholas Cooper FREng
    Director, JN Cooper & Partners Ltd
  • Professor Sir Richard Friend FREng FRS
    Cavendish Professor of Physics, University of Cambridge; Co-founder, Cambridge Display Technology Ltd and Plastic Logic Ltd
  • Dr Andrew Herbert OBE FREng
    Former Chairman of Microsoft Research
  • Dr Gordon Masterton OBE FREng FRSE
    Vice President, Jacobs Engineering; Deputy Chairman Construction Industry Council; formerly President Institution of Civil Engineers
  • Peter Saraga CBE FREng
    Chairman of the Advisory Board, Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme; formerly President of the Institute of Physics
  • Ian Shott CBE FREng
    Managing Partner, Shott Trinova LLP
  • Dr Martyn Thomas CBE FREng
    Director, Martyn Thomas Associates Ltd
  1. About the Royal Academy of Engineering. As the UK's national academy for engineering, we bring together the most successful and talented engineers for a shared purpose: to advance and promote excellence in engineering. We provide analysis and policy support to promote the UK's role as a great place to do business. We take a lead on engineering education and we invest in the UK's world-class research base to underpin innovation. We work to improve public awareness and understanding of engineering. We are a national academy with a global outlook. We have four strategic challenges: Drive faster and more balanced economic growth; foster better education and skills; lead the profession; promote engineering at the heart of society.
  2. Engineering for Growth is a partnership campaign to promote the economic impact and societal benefits delivered by engineering and to raise debate on how engineering can make an even bigger contribution. Engineering for Growth is led by the Royal Academy of Engineering in partnership with Atkins; BAE Systems; EADS; Lucite International; Rolls-Royce; McLaren Group; National Grid; Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; Technology Strategy Board; Institution of Chemical Engineers; Institution of Engineering and Technology; and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
    Engineering for Growth website

For more information please contact:

Ellie Dobson at Proof Communication
Tel: 0845 680 1897 and 07989 176993
Email: Ellie Dobson

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