Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal last night presented the UK’s top innovation prize to a team of engineers from Blatchford, a global leader in prosthetics, for the development of the world’s most advanced prosthetic limb.

Blatchford, which was up against automotive engineering giant Jaguar Land Rover and MRI scanner pioneers Siemens Magnet Technology, has developed the first ever prosthetic limb with integrated robotic control of the knee and foot; a system in which the parts work together like a human leg. Where previously lower leg prosthetics wearers have had to plan their days meticulously according to the limitations of terrain they can tackle, the smart robotics in the Linx Limb system constantly monitor and adapt to the wearer's movements and the environment, giving users much greater confidence and freedom.

Known for spotting the 'next big thing’, every year the MacRobert Award is presented to the engineers behind the UK technology sector's most exciting engineering innovation. As well as gaining from the prestige of the award, the winners receive a gold medal and a £50,000 prize.

The Award, which is run by the Royal Academy of Engineering with support from the Worshipful Company of Engineers, has previously recognised technologies that have since become ubiquitous, such as the catalytic convertor and the CT scanner, which won the MacRobert Award seven years prior to receiving the Nobel Prize.

MacRobert Award winners are chosen by a panel comprising some of the biggest names in UK engineering who are all Fellows of the Academy, through the most comprehensive award selection process in the UK engineering sector.

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “Blatchford has combined a compassionate approach to patient needs with huge ambition and exceptional systems engineering. In doing so, it has created the first-ever integrated lower limb that behaves like a human leg, and produced a platform technology that signifies the beginning of the next generation of prosthetics.

“Commercially, Blatchford also demonstrates outstanding success exporting globally while keeping its manufacturing base here in the UK. The Linx is helping patients throughout the world by empowering them with the freedom to tackle a much greater variety of terrains with confidence, and reducing the discomfort and costs associated with the problems of wearing prosthetics. The team behind this incredible innovation are true role models who show the positive impact that engineering can have on society.”

Blatchford in detail

Basingstoke-based Blatchford has developed the first ever prosthetic limb with integrated robotic control of the knee and foot; a system in which the parts work together like a human leg.

The Linx uses a network of sensors across both the knee and foot, which act like human nerves, continuously collecting data on the user, activity, environment and terrain. The central computer then acts like the brain, using this data to adapt the limb’s response using pioneering software called Mi² (Motion integrated intelligence). This means the wearer can walk confidently, knowing that the limb will be at the right speed and support level at all times.

The Linx ankle talks to the knee at a rate of 400 messages per second - in the course of a single day, the prosthetic limb will adjust over 2000 times to adapt to its environment.

Even standing still can be a challenge for lower limb prosthetic wearers, who use a lot of energy and concentration to hold the leg steady, which means that severe back pain is common. The Linx senses when the wearer comes to a standstill and automatically locks so that the wearer can relax, and when they want to move again the sensors immediately leap into action and unlock seamlessly.

When a patient is first fitted with the Linx, a clinician programmes its central computer by running through a calibration sequence so that the limb learns how its wearer naturally walks and adapts accordingly. This is done via a Bluetooth connection to a software app that shows in real time what the sensors are picking up as it detects the wearer’s natural speed and movements. A smart algorithm then calibrates the limb automatically in one simple step as the knee and the foot joints 'talk' to each other; previous prosthetics would require each joint to be calibrated in turn in a lengthy process that would often require repeat adjustments. 

In England alone, there are currently around 45,000 people who rely on lower limb prostheses, with around 4,000 lower limb amputations carried out each year. Currently only a fraction of these will have access to the latest technology in the Linx as it falls outside NHS budgets; most Linx limbs in use today are benefiting amputees in the US, Germany and Norway. Despite a high price point, the Linx can save money in the longer term, for example by potentially reducing secondary treatments required for back pain, arthritis, falls, and sound-side joint replacements, and extending the life of sockets, which could lessen the need for carers in the longer term.

Blatchford is a family-owned business established in 1890, which has grown to become a global supplier of prosthetic and orthotic products and specialist treatment and rehabilitation. The company currently employs 800 people worldwide and in the last year alone (2015-2016) Blatchford achieved a 25% increase in global sales. The company invests 10% of its revenue back into further research and development, which means that it is already working on future advances.

Team members:

  • Professor Saeed Zahedi OBE FREng, Technical Director
  • Nadine Stech, Senior Control Engineer
  • Andy Sykes, Principal Electronic Engineer
  • Dr David Moser, Principal Mechatronic Engineer
  • Rob Painter, Senior Mechanical Engineer

Notes for editors

About the MacRobert Award. First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award is widely regarded as the most coveted in the industry. Founded by the MacRobert Trust, the award is presented and run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, with support from the Worshipful Company of Engineers. For more information, visit: www.raeng.org.uk/prizes/macrobert

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 for televisions and smart phones. In 2014 the Award was given to Cobalt Light Systems, which pioneered a technique to determine the chemical composition of materials in containers and behind a range of other barriers including skin, for use in airport scanners and medical diagnostics.

Last year’s winner was Edinburgh-based Artemis Intelligent Power, which has pioneered a new Digital Displacement power system that is transforming the viability of offshore wind power and low carbon buses and trains. Judges described Artemis’ technology as achieving “a technical advance of global importance” in energy systems. Since winning the award, the company has gone from strength to strength, with two 7MW offshore turbines, including the world’s largest floating offshore turbine, now generating power into the UK and Japanese grids. The organisation continues to push its technology into new application areas, including trains and off-highway vehicles such as those used in the construction industry.

The 2016 MacRobert Award judges are:

  • Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng (Chair)
    Consultant; Chair, Nuclear Innovation Research Advisory Board
  • John Baxter CBE FREng FRSE
    Chair, Advanced Nuclear Research Centre (ANRC), University of Strathclyde; formerly Group Head of Engineering, BP International Ltd
  • Nick Cooper FREng
    Director, JN Cooper & Partners Ltd
  • Keith Davis
    Chairman, The MacRobert Trust
  • Professor David Delpy CBE FREng FRS FMedSci
    Chairman, Defence Scientific Advisory Council
  • Dr Andrew Herbert OBE FREng
    Formerly Chairman, Microsoft Research EMEA; Emeritus Fellow, Wolfson College, Cambridge
  • Professor Gordon Masterton OBE FREng FRSE
    Chair of Future Infrastructure, School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh; formerly Vice President, Jacobs Engineering
  • Peter Saraga CBE FREng
    Chairman of the Advisory Board, Ambient Assisted Living Joint Programme
  • Dr Frances Saunders CB FREng
    Immediate Past President, Institute of Physics; formerly Chief Executive, Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)

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:

  • Make the UK the leading nation for engineering innovation
  • Address the engineering skills crisis
  • Position engineering at the heart of society
  • Lead the profession

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