How Engineers can win the Longitude Prize, again

Viewpoint

Voting for the Longitude Prize closes tomorrow. Here, Longitude Committee member and vice-president for external affairs at the Royal Academy of Engineering, Prof Martyn Thomas, explains how engineers could contribute to the shortlisted project options.

Engineering is the process of turning advances in science into new products and processes, creating wealth and making the world a better place.

Engineers are therefore fundamental to solving the six challenges in the Longitude Prize 2014 and winning the £10 million prize fund.

In fact it was an engineer, John Harrison, who solved the greatest problem of his day and won most of the original £20,000 Longitude prize fund, three centuries ago.

Harrison
The watch that won the original Longitude Prize, John Harrison’s H5

Engineers have everything that is needed to solve these challenges. They are inventive and creative, finding new applications for old solutions and new solutions where nothing is available off-the-shelf. They are relentlessly practical. They know how to build effective teams, to draw on a rich combination of skills and talents, and how to plan and manage a project within the time and resources available. Scientists may create new opportunities but it is always engineers who turn them into products and services.

As I outline below, the six Longitude Prize challenges can all be approached in a variety of ways and using different combinations of expertise. It is unlikely that completely novel science will be discovered and brought into practical use on the timescales for the Prize. It’s far more likely that winning solutions will exploit existing science and novel combinations of both innovative and mature engineering.

The Dementia challenge may lead to many varieties of assistive technology, allowing a patient with dementia to remain independent and improving their quality of life, or it may be won by a solution that delays the onset of disability, perhaps drawing on the lessons from the latest “brain-training” games and insights from neuroscience.

There have been many recent advances in intelligent devices and sensors. As we improve these technologies, we may see significant advances in responsive devices and smarter homes. Technologies exist at the moment such as Nest, the intelligent fire alarm and thermostat system and iMagiMat the intelligent carpet. However, these innovations exist in isolation from each other. Engineers are needed here to help imagine and produce integrated systems that are supportive and not at all confusing to someone suffering from dementia. 

The Flight challenge – which asks for a way to fly carbon free – might be approached through better biofuels and engines, electric propulsion, or a low-drag airship.

The history of aviation has required constant engineering innovation and most branches of engineering have had a role to play. Currently there are a few innovators and engineers working to develop zero carbon flight such as Solar Impulse, a self-powered record-breaking aircraft capable of endurance flight using energy produced from wing-mounted solar cells.

But despite the great advances that have been made in the development of zero-carbon flight, there are no obvious paths for these developments to make a major contribution to commercial aviation. Engineering knowledge needs to be combined with new ways of imagining the way we fly to provide scalable solutions to flight in the future.ri

Creating a food innovation to win the Food challenge could involve chemical engineers improving fertilisers or genetic engineers improving crops so they don’t need fertilisers at all.  Bio-industrial processes revolutionised the way we grow food with the invention of the Haber process, has and they have also given rise to new ways of growing food in bioreactors. Food engineers such as Ento are already working on the production of  industrial-scale farming of insects for consumption. The challenge for designers and engineers here is to produce food that is palatable for humans or suitable for feedstuffs for farm animals or fish and that that radically reduces the impact of production on the environment.

The Paralysis challenge to increase the freedom of movement for people could involve improved exoskeletons or prosthetics, perhaps drawing on advances in intelligence and sensors from  recent engineering developments in robotics.  Recent developments in exoskeletons have bees spectacular, for example  REX is a remarkable  engineering feat that enables someone to walk again; however at the moment it’s heavy and slow. With this challenge engineers have the opportunity to team with biologists and neurologists to explore the field of brain-computer interface, microelectronics and medical engineering to replace movement and loss of secondary functions, in a small, light and easy to use device.

Giving everyone access to clean water isone of thechallenges that might be tackled through novel or much improved methods for desalination or for extracting clean, potable water from other polluted sources. There are a number of promising technologies that could enable more energy-efficient desalination. These technologies are diverse and engineers will play a vital role in pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible. The key to success may involve finding new ways to improve the minimum energy required to desalinate seawater, which is dependant on three main factors: the salinity of the input water, its temperature and the recovery rate of the fresh water being produced. From membrane technology to nano-technology and thermal solutions, both mechanical and civil engineers could play a role here.

The conventional approach to the Antibiotic challenge, tackling the resistance to antibiotics, would be the synthesis of novel compounds with antibiotic properties, though other approaches could be to develop diagnostic tools to distinguish cheaply and quickly between bacterial and viral infections, to reduce the over-prescription of antibiotics for diseases for which they have no therapeutic effectiveness, or to develop alternative approaches to reduce the use of antibiotics in farming.

Whatever challenge is selected for the Longitude Prize 2014, it is clear that engineers will play a leading part in most, if not all, of the competing solutions. Engineering will also win in other ways, because the publicity surrounding the Prize will deepen public understanding of the variety of careers in modern engineering and show the vital importance of engineering in solving the world’s greatest problems. This will inspire a new generation to take up engineering careers. It will bring more attention, sponsorship, research funding and investment into many areas of engineering. The result will be more activity, more jobs for engineers and many other spin-off benefits.

Longitude Prize 2014 asks for individuals and teams to imagine how the future could be better than the present – and then to put their ideas into practice for the benefit of humanity. That is exactly what engineering is about and what engineers do, and that is why engineers will win the Prize.

The result of a public vote to select which of the challenge areas will become the primary focus for the Prize will be announced during The One Show on 25 June 2014, but it is likely that all of the areas will have gained a lot of support and that all of them will be worked on with enthusiasm and attract substantial extra resources. 

Vote now for the challenge you want to become the focus of the Longitude Prize at www.bbc.co.uk/horizon