Helena Pozniak
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The future starts here

The Telegraph
Four medal-winning engineers give Helena Pozniak a glimpse of tomorrow’s world

It is 20 years since the Royal Academy of Engineering began awarding the Silver Medal to recognise an outstanding and personal contribution to British engineering, and subsequent application in the marketplace. We ask this year’s winners to predict how their sector is likely to develop in the next five years.


Peter Brewin, co-founder of multiaward-winning company Concrete Canvas

While at university together, Brewin and his co-director Will Crawford created Concrete Canvas, a rapid-setting fabric impregnated with concrete that is activated with water. Now used in more than 40 countries, it allows construction projects to be completed faster, more efficiently and with a lower environmental impact than conventional concrete.

“Rather than building new infrastructure, we need to find clever ways of upgrading and making existing structures last longer,” says Brewin. “Much of the UK’s railway infrastructure was built in Victorian times and desperately needs upgrading. And while there won’t be many new motorways built in Britain, existing ones need repairing and improving. “A lot of modern infrastructure was built from concrete after the Second World War and is reaching the end of its design life. We use our concrete composite to reline old, cracking structures such as ditches and drains quickly, with minimal loss of capacity, or to protect and stabilise banks and slopes near construction sites,” he continues. “More composite materials will be developed for the construction industry as an alternative to steel reinforced concrete; carbon-fibre wraps, for example, are now used to update columns. But this is expensive as carbon fibre was designed for the automotive and aeronautical sectors. “Just look at the residential sector to see how beautiful old buildings are being restored. Victorian houses don’t get knocked down because they’re so well built, but upgrading them to perform like modern ones is an exciting challenge. Any good engineering degree will prepare you for a career in this sector — from designing buildings to developing new composite materials.”


Máire O’Neill, professor of Information Security at Queen’s University Belfast

A leading digital security expert, Prof O’Neill developed the high-speed security silicon chips now used in more than 100 million television set-top boxes. Her work on silicon chip architecture for encryption and authentication has led to improvements in other areas, such as cloud computing and charging electric vehicles. She is now working on the next generation of anti-counterfeiting technology. “We’re heading towards a future of smart cities with an interconnected system of systems,” she says. “Cyber, physical and social worlds will converge and information will flow from the physical to the cyber world and vice versa. Our surroundings will adapt to human behaviour and social dynamics. For example, as you walk past advertisement screens they will target you based on your online purchasing and social profile. “Also on the horizon is the internet of things [IoT], which allows objects to have a digital identity and communicate with each other. You’ll be able to communicate with your fridge on leaving work to find out what shopping to pick up or, even better, your fridge will order it for you. For smart security to evolve successfully, cyber security is key. “Researchers predict that more than 26 global cities will be ‘complete’ smart cities by 2025, and their smart energy, utilities, communication networks, healthcare, transport and buildings will all need appropriate security services,” says Prof O’Neill. “In today’s society we can split our security needs into different sectors. At a high level, these are infrastructure security and user security. They can be further divided into the security needs of citizens, businesses, transport, energy and networked devices. But in smart cities the divisions will be blurred. Intelligent secure communications will be at the core of all systems, integrating with pervasive devices, physical security systems and transport and energy management.”


Chris Young, programme director of Rolls-Royce’s Trent XWB engine

The world’s most efficient large aircraft engine, the Trent XWB will power GETTY the new Airbus A350 XWB aircraft, due to enter service later this year. “We need to strive for better environmental performance within the aeronautical sector; more efficient engines that deliver greater fuel efficiency. This will ensure civil aerospace remains sustainable,” says Young. “We need continued investment in areas such as computer modelling technology, so that research can become virtual rather than physical, speeding up the engine design process. “We’re also moving away from using traditional metallics in favour of lighter composite materials, such as ceramics; the aircraft for which I provide engines are 60 per cent composite. Customer experience will be improved — new materials mean a more humid cabin as there’s less risk of corrosion, so long-haul passengers won’t wake feeling so dehydrated. “Biofuels will continue to develop; sustainability is important. As a company, where we see a need for research we invest in it. Universities and industry are beginning to collaborate more closely as the government can no longer fund everything. With a good degree in any engineering discipline you should have a successful career.”


Prof Dino Distefano, software engineer at Facebook

Prof Distefano has held his position at Facebook since its acquisition of his start-up, Monoidics. He is also professor of software verification at Queen Mary University of London. “Facebook’s mission is to make the world more open and connected, and new technologies are crucial in helping us achieve that,” says Prof Distefano. The last 10 years have seen us connect more than 1.2 billion people worldwide, but there are billions more who lack even basic internet access. “In recent years communication has switched to mobile devices, but we’re looking to explore new platforms. I believe key advances in our sector will be connecting those who lack internet access and developing powerful new ways of connecting, such as virtual reality. “We’re involved in Internet.org, a broad partnership of technology companies that aims to connect the unwired world. We’re exploring ways of making mobile apps consume less data so they can be used at low cost in the developing world and exploring technologies that would enable broadband access to be provided from drones. “London has a pool of worldclass talent and a unique mix of sectors that enables collaboration between creatives and developers. In future we need to make this talent pool as deep as possible. Adding computer programming to the national curriculum for primary schools in September is a great start, but we must ensure that teachers and grads are digitally literate and encourage engineering and entrepreneurialism from a young age.”

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