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1 July, 2015 - 13:15 By Tony Quested

Cambridge engineering pioneers win top awards

Dr Andy Ward, co-founder of Ubisense

Cambridge innovators from Ubisense and Microsoft Research have been awarded two of the three 2015 Silver Medals from the Royal Academy of Engineering in recognition of outstanding technological achievements and commercial success. 

Dr Andy Ward (above), co-founder of Ubisense, has invented an indoor location system making car factories smart. Dr Don Syme (below), a principal researcher at Microsoft, is a programming language expert improving the foundations of the digital world.

There was a Cambridge connection with the other winner who completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Cambridge.

For over two decades, the Academy’s Silver Medals have recognised exceptional personal contributions from early to mid-career engineers who have advanced the cause of UK engineering and achieved significant commercial success.

Professor Dame Ann Dowling, Cambridge-based President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “This year’s Silver Medallists are testament to the strength and diversity of UK engineering and demonstrate the breadth of exciting careers that engineering offers. They also demonstrate the power of university/industry collaboration and the importance of innovation to the UK economy. Engineering research generates almost half the value of all UK exports.

“The winners are true leaders in their respective fields, having succeeded in turning their cutting edge research into commercial success stories. It is this critical market exploitation that enables society and the economy to benefit from the world-leading innovation coming out of UK research and development.”

Inspired by the different uses that RADAR was put to after World War II and the unreliability of GPS indoors, Andy Ward was an early proponent of ultra wide band (UWB) radio for accurate in-building positioning. He co-founded Ubisense, a location intelligence provider, in 2002 to develop a solution that could track individual items in a factory and automate the processes between them.

A critical application of this technology is the management of tools used to build cars, automatically configuring them with the right settings for the particular car each tool is working on at any time. 

Removing the need for production line workers to make changes manually for each product allows quick and easy customisation, improves productivity and reduces human error. As such, the technology presents a strong business case for automotive companies.

The technology is the culmination of almost two decades of development, starting when Andy did his PhD on sensor-driven computing at the University of Cambridge. 

Before founding Ubisense where he is now CTO, he led research on location technology at AT&T Laboratories Cambridge, and over the past 10 years has been granted 13 patents based on his work on location systems. 

Ubisense counts large automotive companies like VW, Tesla, BMW and Honda as clients. In 2014, the company achieved total revenues of £35.1 million.
Although the automotive industry is the biggest user of Ubisense’s technology, it has also been used to track opera singers at the Royal Albert Hall and to give patients with brain injuries more independence in hospital.

Dr Don Syme of Microsoft
Dr Don Syme of Microsoft

Microsoft’s Dr Don Syme works to improve the tools available to programmers worldwide, helping them create the building blocks of the virtual world more effectively. He joined Microsoft Research in the late 1990s and has since achieved repeated success in bringing improvements in programming languages to millions of developers. His designs and implementations are essential knowledge for a generation of enterprise programmers, and the applications which use them have reached billions of users via desktop applications, mobile apps and web sites alike.

Keen to make what was possible at the forefront of research usable to industry, Dr Syme first made seminal contributions to the enormously popular C# programming language between 1999 and 2005. 

He then developed the F# language, reaching version 4.0 this year. F# is known for being a clear and more concise language that interoperates well with other systems, and is used in applications as diverse as analysing the UK energy market to tackling money laundering. It allows programmers to write code with fewer bugs than other languages, so users can get their programme delivered to market both rapidly and accurately. 

Used by major enterprises in the UK and worldwide, F# is both cross-platform and open source, and includes innovative features such as unit-of-measure inference, asynchronous programming and type providers, which have in turn influenced later editions of C# and other industry languages.

Before working at Microsoft Research, Don worked at Intel where, in 1997, he contributed to the ForteFL system used for verification of the Pentium 4, which went on to achieve massive worldwide adoption.

Most recently, he has successfully tackled the growing problem of the scalable integration of data and metadata into programming languages. In recognition of his achievements, Don has reached the acclaimed ‘Partner’ level at Microsoft Research. 

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