Four top engineering teams have been selected as the finalists for Britain’s biggest engineering prize – the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. Contenders for the £50,000 prize for 2010 are:

- the world’s first self-aligning ankle-foot prosthesis, helping amputees walk more naturally;

- a pioneering new way to detect landmines that minimises false alarms;

- the global mobile satellite communication system used by all major broadcasters.

- a new, greener chemical production process for methyl methacrylate, the key ingredient in acrylic plastics;

Now the judging panel must compare these widely differing technologies and agree on a winner. They will look for a combination of innovation, proven commercial success and benefit to society. HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Senior Fellow of the Academy, will present the £50,000 prize and the MacRobert award gold medal to the winner at the Academy Awards Dinner in London on Monday 7 June.

Dr Geoff Robinson, Chairman of the judging panel, says: "Yet again, the panel were impressed by the world-beating quality of UK engineering innovation. Far from being laid low by recent difficulties in the financial sector, UK engineering companies have demonstrated their ability to develop innovative engineering with tremendous humanitarian, environmentaland social benefits – and to do so profitably."

Shortlisted for this year’s award are:

Chas A Blatchford and Sons Ltd for the Echelon hydraulic ankle-foot for amputees

Echelon is the world’s first self-aligning ankle-foot prosthesis, using hydraulics to enable amputees to walk far more easily. The new foot adjusts smoothly to inclines and the hydraulics distribute the load in a similar way to natural muscles. Patients say they no longer have to think consciously about walking, where as a conventional ankle-foot prosthesis requires constant awareness and postural adjustments as it cannot flex in a natural way, particularly when walking up or down a slope. Thanks to Echelon, activities such as cycling, dancing, hill-walking and even paragliding have become far more accessible and comfortable for patients. Some injured Forces personnel have been able to return to combat using the new prosthetic foot.

Blatchford’s engineers use gait analysis of the whole leg-ankle-foot system to study the way Nature solves the problem of foot flexion. They combine sophisticated hydraulic dampers with carbon fibre springs to mimic natural muscle control. The whole body benefits as it does not have to compensate so much for an unnatural gait, helping to minimise strain on the back. Echelon draws on the ability of the nervous system to sense body position in space – an attribute called proprioception – which is key to the design of successful prostheses.

In the 18 months since it was launched, over 1,300 Echelon feet have been fitted, generating a turnover of over £2.5 million for Blatchford, which is one of the world’s largest prosthetics manufacturers, celebrating its 120th anniversary this year.

Team members: Technical Director Prof Saeed Zahedi OBE, Principal Mechanical Design Engineer Graham Harris, Senior Hydraulic Design Engineer Fadi Abimosleh, Senior Mechatronic Design Engineer Dr David Moser and Principal Research Prosthetist Joe McCarthy, all based at Blatchford in Basingstoke

Media contact: Ben Blease, Marketing Manager, tel 01256 316609

Cobham Technical Services for the Minehound dual sensor landmine detector

Minehound combines ground-penetrating radar with a high-performance metal detector to increase greatly the efficiency of clearing a minefield, particularly where minimum metal mines are involved. The metal detector remains the standard device used throughout the world in mine clearance – but in many situations there may be 150 false alarms for each real mine found, and every false alarm must be painstakingly investigated. Minehound’s dual detection system dramatically reduces the number of false alarms, typically to around 20 for each real mine found.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that 60-100 million mines are in place in 62 countries, causing 800 deaths each month. Detecting and removing these deadly items averages £1 million per square kilometre owing to the high number of false alarms from metal detectors. Dual sensor technology will enable nearly 33 per cent more land to be cleared within existing budgets and puts better tools into the hands of mine clearance personnel.

Ground-penetrating radar is well known but Cobham has succeeded in making it affordable, portable and capable of being used by someone with little training and no technical background. Minehound integrates all the radar functionality needed into a single printed circuit board. The strongest radar reflection occurs from the interface between air and soil, which tends to swamp the signal from buried objects and innovations in both hardware and signal processing software were required to compensate for this. Conventional radar system displays require considerable skill to interpret so Minehound uses a novel audio output to provide the operator with information about the target. The low power consumption (2.3 W) of the complete radar enables Minehound to operate for 8 to 10 hours without recharging.

Team members: Chief Consultant David Daniels, Project Manager Blair Graham, Principal Engineer Dr Jon Dittmer, Lead Consultant Nigel Hunt and Consultant Engineer Paul Curtis, all based at Cobham Technical Services in Leatherhead.

Media contact: Philip Smart, Brand and Media Manager, Cobham plc, Tel: 01202 857529

Inmarsat plc for providing global 3G broadband coverage via satellite

Bringing TV reports into our homes from even the most remote parts of the world, Inmarsat’s Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) service 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.

On 20 January 2010, 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.

Team members: 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, based at Inmarsat in London

Media contact: John Warehand, tel 020 7728 1579

Lucite International UK Ltd for the Alpha process for methyl methacrylate

The Alpha process is a cheaper, greener way of making methyl methacrylate (MMA), the key ingredient in acrylic plastics. Starting from the simple, widely available chemicals ethylene, methanol and carbon monoxide, Alpha uses highly efficient catalysed reactions with virtually no waste. The process plant is 30 per cent cheaper to build and run than conventional systems and the feedstocks can even be made from biomass.

The main conventional process, ACH, uses highly toxic chemicals and intermediates, and produces significant volumes of waste acid that have to be recovered in an energy intensive sulphuric acid recovery plant.

Methyl methacrylate is an increasingly important chemical, with global demand driven by rising living standards and new applications. The polymer PMMA, well known in solid sheet form as Perspex®, Plexiglas® etc, is widely used in low-energy LCD televisions and the scratch-resistant screens of phones and other hand-held devices. PMMA’s unique optical, colour, weather-resistance and recycling properties make it ideal for many applications including paints and coatings, signage, medical resins and adhesives, electronic displays and solar power generation.

Singapore’s Jurong Island was selected as the location for the first 120ktpa Alpha plant, which was commissioned in 2008. After qualification of the MMA product with all customers and against the most demanding applications, the plant has been sold-out during 2009. The plant performance and reliability have exceeded design expectations and the operating costs are as planned. Planning for Alpha 2 is now well underway: at 250ktpa it will have twice the capacity of Alpha 1 and will be the world’s biggest single-stream MMA plant. Future planned sites include locations within the Middle East, South East Asia and China.

Team members: Programme Manager Dr Ben Harris, Lead Process Technologist Roy Goulder, Research Associate Dr David Johnson, Lead Senior Process Engineer Neil Turner and Process Engineer Dr Darren Gobby, based at Lucite International in Wilton, Co Durham

Media contact: George Farquhar, FD, Tel: 020 7269 7213

Media Mentions

BBC Online: Prosthetic vies for high-tech award

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. HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Senior Fellow of the Academy, takes a close interest in the MacRobert Award and has presented it almost every year since it was created.
  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. The judging panel for the MacRobert Award 2010 is as follows:

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

    Keith Davis (Trustee, The MacRobert Trust)
    Director, Strategy and 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

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. +44 (0)20 7766 0636; email:  Jane Sutton

The MacRobert Award

Video of the 2010 MacRobert Award finalists