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The ‘next big thing’ in engineering

01 June 2017

Raspberry Pi, 3D body surface imaging system and a cyber ‘immune system’; three technologies competing for top innovation prize. Who will win?

MacRobert Award finalists (Credit: Royal Academy of Engineering)

Three global game-changers are in the running for this year’s coveted MacRobert Award, the UK’s top innovation prize, which has a record of spotting the ‘next big thing’ in engineering. Awarded each year by the Royal Academy of Engineering, it is presented to the engineers behind the UK’s most exciting and impactful innovations.

The global impact of this year’s finalists demonstrates that the UK innovation scene is stronger than ever. They are:

Darktrace for their cyber ‘immune system’ that uses machine learning to self-learn what is ‘normal’ for an organisation’s computer network and uses that understanding to detect and fight back against emerging threats that human operators may miss, while keeping the rest of a system running.  

Raspberry Pi for its inexpensive credit card-sized microcomputers, which are redefining how people engage with computing, inspiring students to learn coding and computer science and providing innovative control solutions for industry.

Vision RT for the world’s most accurate real-time 3D body surface imaging system that enables doctors giving radiotherapy to target cancerous tumours with pinpoint accuracy, speeding treatment times while reducing discomfort for patients during radiotherapy and minimising collateral damage that can cause serious side effects.

The three finalists are competing for a gold medal and a £50,000 cash prize. The 2017 winner will be revealed at the Academy Awards Dinner in London on 29 June 2017 in front of an audience of top engineers, business leaders, politicians and journalists.

Many previous MacRobert Award-winning engineering innovations are now ubiquitous in modern technology, transport and healthcare. The very first award went jointly to Rolls-Royce for the Pegasus engine used in the iconic Harrier jets, and to Freeman, Fox and Partners for the Severn Bridge. In 1972 the judges recognised the extraordinary potential of the first CT scanner developed at EMI – seven years before its inventor Sir Godfrey Hounsfield received the Nobel Prize.

MacRobert Award winners are chosen by a panel of Fellows of the Academy, using a comprehensive selection process.

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS, Chair of the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “This year’s MacRobert Award finalists are making a real impact in cyber security, STEM education and cancer treatment. Each of them demonstrates engineering innovation of the highest calibre, but what I’m most proud of is that while they benefit people all over the world, their roots have remained firmly in the UK, bringing significant wealth into our economy. Those with hardware have chosen to manufacture everything here, not for noble reasons but because it makes good business sense, cementing the UK’s global reputation as a leading innovation nation.”

The three finalists

Darktrace has developed pioneering, autonomous machine learning software designed to detect and defend against cyber security threats from within computer networks. The Enterprise Immune System self-learns the normal ‘pattern of life’ of every user and device within a network, and uses that understanding to identify and autonomously respond to threatening anomalies in real time. It acts as a cyber immune system that can immediately detect and neutralise emerging threats, such as ransomware, data theft or prohibited access. Like the human immune system, the Enterprise Immune System does not need any experience of past attacks to understand that an anomaly is potentially threatening. No other software can currently achieve this without some level of human input to define the boundaries of the system or certain aspects of the network. Just four years after launch, the Enterprise Immune System is defending IT systems in over 60 countries for customers including government agencies, international banks, healthcare providers and telecoms operators.

The nominated team members are: Jack Stockdale, CTO; Dave Palmer, Director of Technology; Matt Dunn, VP of Engineering; Alex Markham, Senior Technical Specialist; Dr Stephen Casey, Senior Principal Mathematician.

MacRobert Award Judge Dr Andrew Herbert OBE FREng said: “Trust in many online systems – systems that run numerous aspects of our daily lives – is at an all-time low, with large-scale hacks reported on a weekly basis. This has moved the issue of cyber security onto the front pages and into the public eye. Darktrace has identified a new form of cyber security that moves the whole industry forwards beyond current perimeter defence models to add an intelligent detect-and-neutralise capability. By applying advanced machine learning methods to a novel software application, it has established a world-beating UK-based company that has no significant competitor. Darktrace’s technology provides a valuable ‘neighbourhood watch’ for the digital world.” 

The Raspberry Pi Foundation, through its low-cost, easy to use, credit card-sized microcomputers, is redefining how people learn about and engage with computing. The inexpensive micro PC can be used as the control centre of just about anything, from creating video games to robots, multi-room sound systems, pet feeders, or even scientific experiments. It has inspired a new generation of makers and brought computer programming into classrooms in a fun and engaging way. After initially setting out to help increase the number of computer science applicants to University of Cambridge, the Raspberry Pi team has sold over 14 million devices through engineering and public outreach. Not only have they put the power of coding into the hands of people all over the world, they have also created a whole new class of computing device that has revolutionised the way engineers design control systems in industry.

The nominated team members are: Eben Upton, CEO; James Adams, COO; Pete Lomas, MD, Norcott Technologies; Dom Cobley, Engineer; Gordon Hollingworth, Director of Engineering; Liz Upton, Director of Communications.

MacRobert Award Judge Dr Frances Saunders CB FREng said: “The Raspberry Pi team has achieved something that mainstream multinational computer companies and leading processing chip designers not only failed to do, but failed even to spot a need for. With a team of engineers numbering in the tens, not hundreds or thousands, Raspberry Pi has redefined home computing for many thousands of people across the world, even taking 1 percent of the global PC market. Their refusal to compromise on quality, price point or functionality has resulted in a highly innovative design that has taken the education and maker market by storm, and they have created a world-beating business in the process.”

London-based Vision RT began in an attic in 2001 and today all the top five “Best Hospitals for Cancer” in the USA use its technology. Nearly 1,000 systems have been sold around the world including to the UK National Health Service. Vision RT has developed AlignRT, a guidance system for radiotherapy that helps doctors target cancerous tumours with pinpoint accuracy, reducing harmful collateral damage during treatment. The Company’s AlignRT system can also eliminate the need for patients to have their skin tattooed as part of treatment, meaning cancer survivors will no longer need to carry this visual reminder of their cancer. AlignRT offers significant clinical benefits. For example, left breast cancer patients may be at risk of heart damage from radiotherapy. UK guidelines currently recommend breath-holding techniques – where a patient fills their lungs and holds their breath to move the tumour away from the heart – to help reduce this risk. The Align RT system, which tracks the patient position to within 1mm, automatically shuts off the beam when it is off-target, making treatment safer and more relaxed for patients.

The nominated team members are: Dr Norman Smith, CEO; Dr Ivan Meir, Chief Technology Officer; Gideon Hale, VP Operations.

MacRobert Award Judge Professor David Delpy CBE FREng FRS FMedSci said: “3D imaging technology has become almost ubiquitous in recent years, but to be able to continuously map the surface of the human body and use this to ensure that the radiation beam is targeted at the ideal point to sub-millimetre accuracies is unprecedented. Such an achievement has required innovation at every level, combining both software and hardware expertise. The impressive team at VisionRT has defined Surface Guided Radiotherapy as the reference standard for treatment and continues to invest in innovation and to push boundaries, for the benefit of millions of cancer patients.”

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