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Inspiring tomorrow’s engineers in the big data challenges of today

12 January 2017


A modern-day champion of public engagement in engineering is set to trace the link between the next generation of radio instrumentation, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), and the roots of the man who is widely considered the “grandfather” of long-distance radio transmission.

Danielle George MBE, a Professor of Radio Frequency Engineering at the University of Manchester, will use the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Appleton Lecture 2017 to talk about the impact of Guglielmo Marconi on the world of radio astronomy and the Internet of Things (IoT). She will explain how the potential of the IoT and discoveries made by ALMA and SKA will widen the scope and profound implications of Marconi’s work.

Professor George, who is Vice Dean (Teaching and Learning) in the University of Manchester’s Faculty of Science and Engineering, is the UK’s lead on ALMA. When completed this will be a collection of 66 high-precision antennas observing at millimetre and sub-millimetre wavelengths. Based in northern Chile’s Atacama desert, ALMA is expected to provide unprecedented insight on star formation during the early universe and provide the most detailed maps of local star and planet formation.

She is also heavily involved in SKA, which is planned for construction next year and when fully complete will consist of thousands of antennas spread across the world with central cores in Western Australia and South Africa. It will have a total collecting area of approximately one square kilometre and its size would make it 50,000 times more sensitive than any other radio instrument currently in existence, powerful enough to detect very faint radio signals emitted by cosmic sources millions of light years away from the Earth. The dishes alone will generate ten times the current global Internet traffic.

“The amount of data that SKA will produce is enormous – it could pick up an airport radar signal on a planet ten light years away,” Professor George says. “It will enable us to make huge advances, not only in the field of radio astronomy, but hopefully in many other fields. However, it will give us some huge challenges too. Collecting the data in the first place, of course, and then when we have all the data where do we store it? These are going to be questions for our children and grandchildren, rather than us, which is why we need to get out and talk to people now about the challenges that the next generation of engineers and scientists will need to be inspired enough to solve.”

Professor George has long made it her mission to nurture tomorrow’s professionals today. “It’s important that people know about the impact of Marconi and understand what is possible today and tomorrow as a result of his work,” she said. “But we also need to bring back the art of ‘tinkering’. The current education system doesn’t help – there is currently no incentive to just be curious, fail and do experiments. The ‘hey, how does that work?’ mentality is missing. There is no room in the curriculum for it, and actually we need to instil this at primary school, possibly even at nursery level, and allow children to be curious with their teachers, parents and grandparents. It doesn’t matter where that curiosity takes place, we just need to show them that science and engineering really does matter.”

Professor George says there is an opportunity for change with the current generation. “Children are so comfortable with technology now with many even skilled with a mobile phone from the age of two. We have coding in schools, and low-cost electronics enable you to take things apart and show how they work. There is lots of work to be done though. We lack role models in engineering, we don’t have a Professor Brian Cox figure, and there is not enough about what engineers do on mainstream TV.”

Notes to editors:

  • The 2017 IET Appleton Lecture, “Smart Machines and Data: From ALMA to Zetabytes”, takes place on 19 January 2017 at IET London: Savoy Place.
  • For more information, go to www.theiet.org/appleton