Rolls-Royce-developed Liftfan vertical take-off technology was said to have overcome the laws of nature

Finalists of MacRobert engineering award announced

A technology turning fibre-optic cables into microphones, the world’s first short take-off and vertical landing system, and a device capable of determining chemical composition of liquids inside sealed containers will compete for this year’s MacRobert Award.

The UK’s most prestigious engineering prize, awarded by the Royal Academy of Engineering annually since 1969, has a good record determining the next big hit in the technology sector, meaning all three finalists have been judged not only on the merits of technical innovation itself, but also for their commercial potential.

QinetiQ-owned OptaSense has been nominated for developing listening fibre-optics that could be used to improve safety of fracking. With millions of miles of fibre optic cables underground and undersea around the world, the ability to turn those into extremely sensitive microphones has enormous potential in terms of security monitoring, and many other applications.

Rolls-Royce has impressed the judges with the first vertical take-off system for supersonic fighter jets, which has been developed as part of the Joint Strike Fighter programme of the US Department of Defense.

The largest defence programme of all time, the Joint Strike Fighter will have twice the lifting capability of the UK Harrier jet, an earlier military aircraft capable of vertical take-offs. Rolls-Royce’s new LiftSystem features a completely different design from its predecessor, consisting of three modules – a LiftFan providing vertical thrust, a 3-Bearing Swivel Module redirecting the engine thrust from axial to vertical, and Roll Posts to provide roll stability.  

“When you press that ‘hover’ button it’s as if engineering and electronics have overcome the laws of physics,” a test pilot was quoted as saying about the system.

The third finalist is Cobalt Light Systems, promising to end the ban on liquids in passenger aircraft with their identification technology. Packed inside a neat scanner, suitable for airport operations, the Insight100 technology enables the airport staff to determine the exact composition of any liquid inside a non-metallic container without opening it. The technology could also be used in future non-invasive cancer screening, counterfeit detection and food analysis.

“Each of this year’s finalists has demonstrated excellent innovation and technical expertise but, perhaps more importantly, the significance of how this is being applied for the benefit of society is exceptional,” said John Robinson FREng, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel. “These three UK organisations, each of a different size and stage of business development, truly represent the breadth of the UK’s engineering capability and its global importance. They are first-rate examples of the economic importance of the nation's engineering sector, which the Academy continues to promote through its Engineering for Growth campaign."

The winner will be announced on 2 July 2014 during the Academy’s Awards Dinner at the Royal Opera House in London. Among historic MacRobert Award winners is, for example, EMI Ltd’s CT scanner, which won in 1975 and could now be found in almost every hospital. In 2002, Cambridge Display Technologies won for its light emitting polymer displays, which are now used extensively in televisions and smartphones. The judges predicted that last year’s winner, software SME RealVNC, could be a billion dollar company within five years.

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