Inmarsat, one of the UK space industry’s star performers, has won the 41st annual Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award, Britain’s biggest prize for engineering innovation. Academy President Lord Browne of Madingley presented the team with a £50,000 prize and the solid gold MacRobert Award medal at the Academy Awards Dinner at London’s Guildhall last night (7 June).

The team members sharing the prize are: Vice President Advanced Programmes and Chief Technology Officer Eugene Jilg, Chief Scientist Marcus Vilaca, Director Space Segment Engineering Franco Carnevale and Director System Network Engineering Alan Howell, all based at Inmarsat in London.

The award is made for Inmarsat’s groundbreaking Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service, which provides internet data connectivity anywhere on earth and is widely used for remote connectivity for business, government, broadcasters, aid and relief agencies, and emergency services. The service brings TV reports into our homes from even the most remote parts of the world and is used by many major broadcasters.

On 20 January 2010, just days after the devastating earthquake, a total of 472 individual user terminals accessed the BGAN spot beam over Haiti. At one moment, 137 terminals (supporting many more individual users) were sending and receiving data whilst at the same time 35 telephone conversations were underway. During the course of the day, the beam was used for a total 36,054 minutes of communication, with gigabytes of information transferred.

This instant response was made possible by the BGAN 3G communication service, which was launched with the first Inmarsat-4 satellite in 2005, and scaled up to a fully global service with the deployment of the third Inmarsat-4 satellite and a repositioning of the satellite fleet in February 2009. At 6 metric tonnes, Inmarsat-4 F1 was at its launch the largest telecommunications satellite ever built. It also carries an innovative unfurling antenna and has a plasma propulsion system. In total, around £1.5 billion has been invested in BGAN. The result is the only simultaneous voice and 0.5Mbps data service available anywhere on the planet, at reasonable cost, using satellite terminals the size of laptops.

Satellite communication services have to be planned over a decade ahead of launch, and the satellites are designed to have a life in orbit of some 15 years, during which time they cannot be maintained, repaired or physically modified. Each Inmarsat-4 satellite has 193 focussed beams (which provide the cells), plus 19 regional, and one global beams for detection and switching. This means that compared to a typical traditional ground-based 3G cell of 4km, a BGAN cell needs to be around 800km. The 3G standard, developed for ground-based telephony, had to be significantly adapted for delivery from satellites at 35,600km from the earth, and Inmarsat took a calculated risk in committing to 3G a year before it was formally approved. The risk has paid off, with Inmarsat’s first-quarter results this year showing that revenue soared by nearly 12% to £187.4 million.

Dr Geoff Robinson, Chairman of the MacRobert Award Judging Panel, says "The Inmarsat team had the vision to see the demand for a global broadband service, and the courage to invest significant time and money in developing it. They had to over come formidable engineering challenges to reach their objective. That their service can deliver such tremendous humanitarian benefits, in addition to the technical and commercial ones, must be a source of great satisfaction to this outstanding team."

Inmarsat faced tough competition to win the Award – also shortlisted for this year’s MacRobert Award were:

Chas A Blatchford & Sons Ltd for the Echelon hydraulic ankle-foot for amputees, the world’s first self-aligning ankle-foot prosthesis

Cobham Technical Services for the Minehound dual sensor landmine detector, combining ground-penetrating radar with metal detection to dramatically reduce the number of false alarms

Lucite International UK Ltd for the Alpha process for methyl methacrylate, a cheaper, greener way of making methyl methacrylate, the key ingredient in acrylic plastics.

Notes for editors

  1. First presented in 1969, the MacRobert Award honours the winning company with a gold medal and up to five team members with a tax-free prize of £50,000 between them.
    The MacRobert Award
  2. Founded by the MacRobert Trusts, the Award is now presented by the Academy after a prize fund was established with donations from the MacRobert Trusts, the Academy and British industry.
  3. This year’s judging panel for the MacRobert Award was as follows:

    Dr Geoffrey Robinson CBE FREng (Chair)
    Formerly Vice President of Networking Software, IBM Corporation

    Keith Davis (Trustee, The MacRobert Trust)
    Director, Strategy & Planning, The Royal Academy of Engineering

    Professor Nicholas Cumpsty FREng
    Emeritus Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College London

    Professor Richard Darton FREng
    Head, Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford

    Professor Ian Liddell CBE FREng
    Partner, Buro Happold Consulting Engineers

    Professor Adrian Long OBE FREng
    Formerly Professor of Civil Engineering at Queen's University Belfast

    Professor Richard Parry-Jones CBE FREng
    Formerly Vice President of World-Wide R&D for the Ford Motor Group

    Ian Ritchie CBE FREng FRSE
    Chairman: Interactive University, Sonaptic Ltd, F7 Technology

    John Robinson FREng
    Chairman, Bespak Plc

    Professor Peter Selway FREng
    Formerly Director of Operations for Nortel, Research Fellow, Imperial College London

    Philip Greenish CBE
    Chief Executive, The Royal Academy of Engineering
  4. 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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For more information, pictures and film please contact: Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering Tel. +44 (0)20 7766 0636 or +44 (0)7784 574857; email: Jane Sutton