Three technologies tackling global challenges compete for top UK innovation prize

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:


·      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.


·      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.


·      Vision RT for their technology that helps improve radiotherapy treatment. The technology provides real time feedback on a patient’s alignment before treatment and motion throughout, which is vital for ensuring that the patient is in the correct position and radiation is being delivered according to plan.


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.


Raspberry Pi in detail:

Raspberry Pi – Creators of pocket-size microcomputers that are redefining how kids learn to code.


The Raspberry Pi Foundation, through its easy to use, credit card-sized microcomputers, is redefining how people learn about and engage with computers. From initially setting out to help increase the number of computer science applicants to the University of Cambridge, the Raspberry Pi team has put the power of computing into the hands of people all over the world. By doing so, they are helping to ensure future generations are capable of understanding and shaping our increasingly digital world, able to solve the problems that matter to them, and equipped for the jobs of the future.


Around the turn of the millennium, university computer science courses began to see a dramatic decrease in the number of applicants. This is thought to be linked to the demise of programmable home computers like the BBC Micro and Spectrum ZX. As personal computers and games consoles became more complex, fewer young people felt able to access the ‘back room’ workings of computers, reducing the number of hobbyists. At the same time, computer programming was not widely taught in schools. Raspberry Pi is tackling these problems by firing kids’ imaginations about computing with an easy-to-use, powerful and robust programmable computer, at a price-point that makes it accessible to schools: just $35 for the flagship product, or an even smaller version, the Raspberry Pi Zero, at $5.


The bargain micro PC can be used as the control centre of just about anything, from creating your own video games to robots, multi-room sound systems, pet feeders, or even scientific experiments.


The apparent simplicity of the Raspberry Pi belies the complexity of the engineering challenges faced by the development team. Designing a computer that cost less than a textbook, without sacrificing size, functionality or reliability, was a mammoth task. In order to maximise its applications, the Raspberry Pi also had to have video and audio capabilities and a wide range of inputs and outputs (such as USB and HDMI). This required highly innovative computer chip and software design to ensure not only that the Raspberry Pi didn’t overheat while performing such intensive tasks, but that it could be used in as many situations as possible. This was achieved through using a printed circuit board (PCB) with multiple layers, allowing components to be decoupled from each other and so increasing the flexibility with which the board could be designed. Raspberry Pi also makes use of a microchip designed in partnership with the Cambridge and Bristol offices of Broadcom Ltd to deliver best-in-class multimedia performance with limited power consumption. Raspberry Pi also features general purpose input/output (GPIO); this is a set of pins that allows any external device to be connected, giving it a huge range of applications.


Since the first Raspberry Pi was launched in 2012, the organisation has gone on to sell 14 million thanks to a dedicated community of makers, uptake within schools, and an increasing demand from industry. The unexpected industry demand stems from the reliability of the design; only five in every million Raspberry Pis experience failures (the typical industry rate is 1 in 1000) thanks to its partnership with Sony, which manufactures them in Wales more cost effectively and to higher standards than overseas.


Raspberry Pi is a not for profit organisation. The success achieved by the commercial arm – Raspberry Pi Trading – generates millions in profits that are then used by the charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation to help teach people about computing. Through initiatives such as Code Club, Raspberry Pi helps 85,000 UK children in 5,750 weekly Code Clubs learn the basics of coding. This reach is not limited to the UK; there are 4,500 Code Clubs outside of the country, teaching basic computing skills in 27 languages through 1,084 Raspberry Pi Certified Educators.


The unprecedented success of the Raspberry Pi, alongside a number of other government initiatives, is helping to boost applications to university computer science courses, with many citing Raspberry Pi as their inspiration.


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 one per cent 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.”


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.

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