Gareth Mitchell: From Europe's leading science university, this is the official podcast of Imperial College London. And I'm Gareth Mitchell. Hello. I present the BBC's Digital Planet programme and I'm also a science communication lecturer here at Imperial. In this the November edition of our podcast, safety in the skies with some words of wisdom from an aviation expert. That's in just a moment. And why are a load of engineering students so keen on spending their valuable spare time doing up an ancient seafaring vessel?

Jian Yu: It's rather surreal really. You see this ship sitting there in dock and you just can't imagine that it's older than the Titanic. And you think, wow, it's still afloat.

GM: Also this month I get my first glimpse behind the scenes at Imperial's shiny new Institute of Biomedical Engineering. And it turns out there's a certain amount of games playing going on in there.

Benny Lo: As the penguin heads down the slope my job is to steer the penguin. In order to control the penguin, instead of doing the usual thing that you might have with a games controller or a joystick or a paddle or something like that I'm actually controlling him using my head. All very good fun but behind it a serious agenda to help top athletes and people with disabilities.

GM: All that and more here on this the Imperial College podcast.

Peter Brooker on the future of safe air travel

Okay, well to start there are many big questions that society has to answer. How to deal with climate change? Should we use nuclear weapons? And what should we do about world poverty? And surely up there with those big questions, especially with so many people flying these days, is just how do we keep aviation safe? Now, thankfully there are various people working on this very big question. One of them is Professor Peter Brooker who's actually at Cranfield University but he's visiting Imperial College. Because he's been on campus to deliver the annual Lloyds Register Education Trust Transport Risk Management lecture. You've been talking about a new paradigm in air traffic control. Let's start pretty much with the basics. What is the primary function of air traffic control?

Peter Brooker: Well, the primary function of air traffic control is to make sure that aircraft don't crash into each other.

GM: As simple as that. Of course it's one of those things that is so deceptively simple but then the solutions, especially with so many aircraft in the skies, the solutions to that problem are just fiendishly complicated aren't they?

PB: The difficulty that we face really is increasing traffic. We need to make sure that if we have twice as much traffic or three times as much traffic it's going to be as safe, and we would hope quite a bit more safe.

GM: And can you just give me an idea of how air traffic control works at the moment? Because it seems to me as if the technology is very much rooted in the 1930s/1940s. A lot of it, you know, radio contact between the air traffic controller and the pilot up in the sky.

PB: Yes, that's right. I mean there's a lot of voice communication between the pilot and the controller. The controller is the person who tries to ensure that aircraft are on separated routes. And the controller monitors aircraft flying along those routes using radar and using information about flight plans and other sorts of information. And the controller is an absolutely crucial factor in this. This is one of the issues really. How can we help the controller do the job? How can we help the controller handle more traffic safely?

GM: It seems as if things are pretty straightforward. As you say, the skies are incredibly safe. I think aviation is the safest form of transport in terms of accidents and fatalities per billion passenger kilometres. It's just when things happen out of the ordinary, isn't it? You know, if a pilot has to change course for some reason. There's some difficulty with the plane. Those kinds of things can cause problems with the system?

PB: Yes. You can look at the sorts of things that are incidents. There are enough incidents to look at to try and understand what would cause an accident. And you can see that it's some possibility of misunderstanding. Some miscommunication. Some very high workload for a pilot or a controller that means they don't pay attention to a problem that's just about to arise. And those are the sorts of problems that you have to solve for the future. Because if you're going to have much more traffic you're going to have to make sure that you either eliminate those types or problems or you put in extra things to mitigate against them.

GM: And in working towards this new paradigm, as you put it, you know, a kind of new approach, a fresh approach to air traffic control, I suppose we have technologies that have come about over the last decade or so, maybe the last 20 years, that have started to take us towards that shifting in a paradigm. One of which is this system called TCAS. Can you just briefly outline what that is?

PB: Well TCAS is an onboard collision avoidance system and it basically takes something like the radar tracks of the aircraft and projects them forward and tells the pilot to climb or defended if there's a possibility of aircraft coming near to each other. It's been adopted worldwide in recent years. It was originated in the States and they did a lot of development work. It was taken up by Europe and it was taken up with worldwide mandates. And it's a really big improvement in terms of trying to make sure that you resolve problems that have arisen because of some sort of difficulty in communication or whatever, as I say.

GM: I'm sure data is often hard to collect but has it actually been shown in some cases to have prevented accidents?

PB: This is one of the difficulty ones. Because demonstrating that something would have happened if things had been different is always a complicated one. And what's tended to happen is, again, we use incident data. And people use simulations. They vary the parameters of incidents and see what sorts of things would have happened. TCAS has made an improvement. It's really reduced the risks that people are exposed to.

GM: In terms of other technologies being used then, for instance the communication between the ground and the sky. I was lucky enough to visit air traffic control in Maastricht in Holland last year to look at a system called Datalink. And I'm sure you can put this much better than me. But it's to do really with effectively text messages being transferred from air traffic controllers to pilots.

PB: Yes, and vice versa. I mean you are able now to transfer data not using voice but using digital communication channels from air to ground. And you can transmit information on the aircraft. What position it's at. What its flight management system, which flies the aircraft generally, is intending to do. So you have it so that the air and the ground have the same picture of what's going on.

GM: And when you're talking about data being transferred you might, for instance, have a piece of text that appears on the f light deck that ma y have been sent up from the ground. And I'd have thought probably particularly suitable for those cases where the information isn't too urgent?

PB: Yeah. The idea, I think, with the future systems, the new paradigms, is that you're going to have a much more strategic system. And people talk in terms of a strategically planned system. The present system is more tactical. There are lots of decisions that are made on a comparatively short timescale. And the idea is you're going to use very accurate navigation. You're going to use the fact that there's accurate positioning from satellites. You have this data linking from air to ground of the data that's in the aircraft computer system and in the ground systems. You have a thing called SWIM which is a major intranet type function which moves data around the system. So you have a lot more data available but it's good data in the sense that everybody has the same sort of picture of what's happening. And if you have the same sort of picture that's happening for air and ground that means you can eliminate a lot of the problems that potentially are precursors of incidents in the present system.

GM: And would some of these problems relate to the fact that there are human factors here? I mean it's just an inescapable fact that it's a human being up there flying the plane and it's a human being down there on the ground in air traffic control.

PB: Yes, people make mistakes. You've got very, very highly trained people in the air and on the ground. But we monitor incidents. The UK monitors incidents where the separations between aircraft are infringed. And people do make mistakes. You have to have systems that protect against it. We've now got these automated collision avoidance systems which do a tremendous job. What we have to do, if you're going to handle a lot more traffic, is to try and get that in as early as possible. And if you can get a strategic de-confliction, that's a bit of a phrase. But if you can strategically de-conflict aircraft so that they don't get into positions where there's even the potential of a problem then you're doing an awful lot to try and improve safety.

GM: Is that partly what this system that you spent some time discussing about, SESAR? Another acronym here. Just briefly tell us what that's about.

PB: It's a collaborative programme. There's a lot of industry contributors to it. Airlines. A lot of manufacturers. The National Air traffic Control organisations. All putting together a vision of the future which uses the various technologies and tries to get a system that is actually going to deliver something by 2020. Something like three times improvement in safety and dealing with all the traffic growth you might imagine between now and 2020. And at some point, if you're going to maintain the safety standards that you want, if you're going to deliver those standards of safety, you would have some sort of gridlock. Eventually you have to get to a situation that you don't allow extra aircraft to fly. Now, that's not a situation people want to get to. We want to have a growing system that can handle new aircraft operations. Operations from different airports. More low cost operators. These people want to use the system. If you're going to deliver that system safely people were thinking we have to have a new paradigm which uses the technologies. But it uses them in a way so that the key human beings in the system, the controllers and the pilots, have sensible operational jobs that enable that safety to be delivered.

GM: Professor Peter Brooker of Cranfield University, who's also a former chief scientist of National Air Traffic Services. Right then, what time is it? I think it's about news roundup time.

Headlines from around the College

GM: Now, have you read the paper New Reference Equation of State for Associating Liquids? If not don't worry too much because plenty of others have. Co-authored by an Imperial College chemical engineer it's just been recognised as one of the most widely cited scientific papers of the last 30 years. It describes so called statistical associating fluid theory or SAFT. And it's all about how molecules interact with each other. SAFT is of great use to engineers working on industrial scale chemical reactions as it's a single theory that works both on the smallest molecules and big complex ones like polymers. The fact that so many have cited the paper bears out its true value to science and engineering. The accolade of most cited has just been awarded by the American Chemical Society's Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research Journal. A pleasing result for Imperial's Professor George Jackson who co-authored that SAFT paper along with colleagues at Rice, Wyoming and North Carolina State Universities.

And another paper that I'm sure will be cited widely describes a newly discovered fungus called Xerocomus silwoodensis. Now if that label sounds familiar that's because it's been named after Imperial's Silwood Park Campus. The site, just outside London, is where much of the College's biological research goes on and where researchers discovered the fungus previously unknown to science. Xerocomus silwoodensis is a non-edible relative of another fungus popularly known as Penny Bun, a velvety rusty coloured variety widely used in French cooking. The Silwood scientists discovered their eponymous fungus growing behind the halls of residence on campus and have just written it up in the journal, Mycological Research.

And in between podcasts you can stay up-to-date with the latest from Imperial via our Press Office website. Just go to

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Restoring SS Robin

So what do Imperial engineers do when they're not in the lab rigging up various elaborate experimental devices while trying to derive complex equations of motion from first principles? Well, some of them give up their time to apply their newly learned engineering principles to restoring an ancient vessel. SS Robin is the World's oldest complete steam ship and Imperial students are at the heart of volunteering effort to restore her. Laura Flegg, who's just graduated from our Science Media Production MSc, has been to East London to meet SS Robin and her band of determined devotes.

Andy Owler: When you read through the old papers they described her as an old lady. She worked from 1890 right through to 1974 with only 10 years under British ownership. She was owned by the Spaniards for the rest of that time. They've done a pretty amazing job to keep her going. Most ships of her age went to the scrap yard long ago. She didn't.

Jian Yu: It's rather surreal really. You see this ship sitting there in dock and you just can't imagine that it's older than the Titanic. And you think, wow, it's still afloat.

Laura Flegg: Thoughts there from Gin Yu, an aeronautical engineering graduate, and Andy Owler, supervising engineer, on restoring the magnificent steamship SS Robin. Her owners, David and Nishani Kampfner founded the SS Robin Trust and have teamed up with Imperial College volunteers to bring the ship back to life. Intrigued by this historical vessel I took a trip to the National Maritime Museum to discover more about SS Robin's place in the history books.

Simon Stevens: My name is Simon Stevens. I'm the Case Officer for the National Historic Ships. And basically our job is to run and administer the National Historic Ships' Register, which is a database of all our historic ships around the British Isles. We've got about 1,500 vessels. And to give us some idea of importance each vessel is given a score. And depending upon what score the vessel gets will then depend whether they're core collection, which is the top 55 or so. The middle section is the designated vessel and then the remaining is the registered only.

LF: And what about SS Robin?

SS: Robin is core collection. And the reason being it's on the core collection is it's a very good example, a complete example, of one of our last small coastal steamers and one of the last to trade commercially as well. A great thing about the Robin is its completeness. It's got all its fixtures and fittings on deck. It's got a bridge. It's got a funnel. It's got the original engines. The hull is in very good shape. So it's quite an important vessel, which is why we've put it on our core collection.

LF: After hearing about SS Robin and her importance in maritime history I was very excited to be allowed onboard and all the more so to operate her recently restored but original whistle, with Andy's assistance of course.

AO: The whistle is up there. It's like an organ pipe. The whole of the base is where the sound comes out. And the lever on the front with this wire on it is what you need to pull to make a sound.

LF: So I'm going to do that and blow the whistle?

AO: To make a sound you're going to do that, yes.

LF: Excellent.

AO: Go on then. Pull it firmly.

LF: So I pull this and the whistle is going to go?


LF: Wow, that's fantastic. Brilliant.

AO: That's pretty genuine. It's compressed air not steam but it would sound much like that.

LF: Having been up on deck the next step of the SS Robin tour takes us down into the depths of her hull. Ducking between cogs, levers and wheels I find myself at the heart of the engine room besides Robin's original engine. It's called a triple expansion engine and Andy explains how it works in three consecutive stages.

AO: So this is the engine. Three cylinders. Do you know anything about engines?

LF: Not a great deal, no, I'm afraid.

AO: Piston. Cylinder up there with a piston in it pushes this cistern rod down and then this connecting rod turns the crankshaft. And there's one there.

LF: And I can see that there's three.

AO: Steam comes in at the high pressure end. That's the throttle valve. You open that.

LF: So you turn that on to let the steam in?

AO: To let the steam in. Into the high pressure cylinder first. It does one stroke through there. Comes into the intermediate pressure, the middle one, one stroke through there. And finally to the low pressure, the far one, the biggest one, and that pushes that one down.

LF: So the steam kind of goes along, in through one cylinder, along in through the next cylinder, along and through the next cylinder?

AO: It's used three times and then out of the final cylinder into a condenser, which is the big green thing at the back, which is where you've got sea water going through tubes and the steam goes on to the outside of the tubes and condenses back into water. And then it's pumped back into the boiler to be heated up again and it comes out as steam. So that's a continuous cycle.

LF: In general the engine is the original that was built? How many years ago was it?

AO: 1890.

LF: So what part of this is the bit that the students are going to help restore?

AO: If you look to the left you'll see a red bar standing upright. That's the means by which we can actually rotate the engine even though we haven't got any steam pressure. And we're supposed to turn the engine at least a quarter of a revolution every week just to keep things moving and free. You can see that it's still working.

LF: Yeah, to stop it kind of ceasing up.

AO: That lever is quite hard to pull. I found out yesterday that there are 160 cranks of the lever to turn the engine over once. So if you want to do 40 cranks a day.

LF: So the idea is that the students will design and make a mechanism that makes that a lot quicker and easier?

AO: Put some sort of actuator on, yes.

LF: Over on the other side of town Imperial College students have the challenge of designing a mechanism to automatically rotate Robin's almighty engine. And that's one of the topics at this regular meeting to discuss progress. Engineering graduate Gin Yu is the group convener. He ducks out of the meeting to tell me that it's good for these students to get together to share their technical know how, and enjoy a bit of a social.

JY: Some of the members I've already met before but some of them are new members so it's good to put a face to the name as well as have everybody in one place so that you can actually discuss certain issues that need to be sorted out as soon as possible.

LF: So did you actually discuss some of the possible design projects?

JY: Basically, the first thing is to calculate what the torque is that we need to apply. And once we know that then we can actually start progressing with the different options available to us.

LF: What's it like to be working on such a historically important ship as SS Robin?

JY: It's been a very pleasurable experience. It does involve a bit of getting your hands dirty but that's something that I was expecting. And as much as you get your hands dirty you get hands-on experience from that. I just feel privileged that I'm part of the team.

LF: Behind the scenes Imperial's Volunteer Centre is responsible for setting up and coordinating the collaboration with SS Robin Trust. The woman in charge is Community Relations Manager Minna Ruohonen and she tells me how Imperial became involved in the restoration project.

MR: SS Robin contacted us here at the Volunteer Centre about three years ago and we discussed how we could actually work together.

LF: So what kind of students do they need and what kind of skills are involved?

MR: Specific skills especially needed are engineering skills related to ship restoration.

LF: So it seems like a great deal for the students and for SS Robin. It gets undergraduates out of the workshop and face to face with a real life engineering project with a bit of maritime history thrown in. And for SS Robin it's a chance to return to her former maritime glory. Back onboard Supervising Engineer Andy Owler is already looking forward to firing up the beast of an engine for a real day out.

AO: They believe that that engine could run again without too much difficulty and without too much expense. We could take her down to Southend to work within the estuary of the Thames. Down to Dungeness perhaps, just into the channel a little bit. All aboard for the Skylark and then go down to Southend for Sunday lunch. That would be good.


GM: SS Robin ending that report from Science Media Production MSc student Laura Flegg.

Intelligent in-ear body sensors

Well, finally, if you're into video games then speak nicely to the folks in our new Institute of Biomedical Engineering and they might let you have a go on one of their new demos. It's a game where you have to control a fast moving penguin as it speeds down an icy slope. But here the conventional hand-held games controller has been swapped for a little radio device that you wear tucked behind your ear. Prepare for some funny looks from passers by as you negotiate the game by wobbling your head from side to side. Well of course there is a wider research project behind all the fun as I found out the other day when I popped in to see research fellow Benny Lo.

Benny Lo: This game is called Tux Racer. It's an open source game. It's a pretty old game but we're adding this wireless sensor on. We're using the body to control the skiing of the penguins, which makes it much more interesting.

GM: So the game has started and the central character is a penguin. This is obviously where the name Tux Racer comes from. It's skiing down quite a precarious looking slope, lots of snow everywhere, on his belly. And every now and again you can hear like a little popping noise. I'll try and make it go pop. And the reason why I'm saying I've got to try and make the popping noise is because I'm controlling this penguin. Oh, he's just gone over some black ice, which is particularly hard for him to control. There's another popping noise. That's basically the penguin being controlled by me going into a fish. You've got these blue fish that are in a rather surreal way floating over the snowscape here. And as the penguin heads down the slope my job is to steer the penguin. Oh, we've just come up to the finish there as well. And I've got a score of 296, which I think means improvement is needed. But in order to control the penguin instead of doing the usual thing that you might have with a game controller or a joystick or a paddle or something like that I'm actually controlling him using my head. And the reason I'm doing that is because I'm wearing a device that looks almost like a futuristic version of one of these Blue Tooth headsets that you see a lot of minicab drivers wearing and delivery people and that kind of thing, van drivers. And this one is a much sleeker looking device. And I assume Benny that what this device is doing is somehow picking up the movement of my head?

BL: Yes, it's picking up your posture. So we're using this signal to control the penguin in this game.

GM: When you say my posture I guess it's all about having to, in order to move the controller, which is tucked behind your ear, then you need to be moving your head and in order to get that kind of left and right movement of the penguin to move your head, it's a bit hard to explain, but you do have to move your whole body don't you?

BL: Yes. We find that moving your body you have a better control. So just moving your head may not be able to play this game very well.

GM: It's a bit like having to ski in a way except here instead of being on your skies your feet are very much rooted on the ground but you are kind of moving your upper body to try and manipulate this penguin. And so obviously there's some kind of movement detector in this device and then somehow that's connected up to the computer here through a wireless link then?

BL: Yes, indeed. We're using this what we call body sensor network. Basically it's a very tiny computer. And it also has a wireless link. In the old days the computer would be the size of a room but nowadays the computer is getting very small, very tiny, so that we can put it together in a very small earpiece. And the computer picks up all the sensor signals from your body and then transmits wirelessly to the computer.

GM: I think it's incredible how you've got the technology so small. It's so miniature now that this movement technology can fit into a little device that you can barely see. What's the purpose of this then? I mean it's great and it's another way of bringing a game to life. Is that your main objective here, to reinvent gaming?

BL: No, no. The main drive for this sensor is for sports training. One of the main applications is using it for sprinters. So picking up the push of the sprinters. The push is very important for sprinting if you want to try to make it to be less than 10 seconds and so on. And we try to use this very small sensor for the athletes so that they can wear them during the game or during training to look at their train and also to provide a tool for them to improve their performance.

GM: So for a sprinter it's not just a matter of them pointing their head forward and running as fast as they can? As they're doing their thing out on the track, doing the 100 metres, their heads are basically moving from side to side and backwards and forwards and that's what this sensor can pick up?

BL: Yes. And on top of that by putting the sensor on the ear we can also pick up something very interesting. It's their gait. The way they run. Because the human has an inner ear and in fact our sensors pick up similar information as our inner ear. We can look at those stat links and so on and for the athletes to see how well they perform during their training and also during the game.

GM: So the idea is the athlete wears one of these things. They go and do their thing. You're sitting there with a computer. You're able to monitor all this data and capture it and then presumably show it back to the athlete as a graph that shows their movements as they go along. But how exactly is that helpful, looking at that graph?

BL: In terms of making a difference. Making that under nine second or whatever they really have to look at very detailed things. At the moment most of the athletes have to go into the lab wearing a lot of small sensors running a very short distance to look at their gait, their posture. Sprinting, it may not be possible on a running machine because it's too fast. And so our aim is to try to move it away from the lab and put it into the training track so that they can still have the data while they're training and look at the improvement and see if they can improve in certain ways in terms of their posture and also their gait.

GM: And you've got some of the printouts that you get from the graphs here. I mean I look at this and it's a bit like one of those ECGs that you see in hospital. I mean it doesn't mean a whole lot to me. But I guess your point is that if you've got a real professional athlete they can look at this and they have an idea of what the ideal trace should look like and then they just try and adapt their training to achieve those kinds of traces.

BL: Yes, the raw signals. We're trying to show what it looks like. And of course we have techniques to simplify those signals to make it ever easier to understand. That's one area we're working on at the moment.

GM: And you're also thinking beyond athletics and looking at the hospital setting as well and patients?

BL: In fact actually we started off with healthcare where we were looking at patients after surgery to look at their activities and so on. And after doing a lot of patient trials and so on we found that this sensor is very useful. And then we looked into the sport application recently.

GM: And then from the sport application you went on to demonstrate this technology to children and that's where you came up with the idea of plugging this into a computer game, just to make it fun for the kids I guess?

BL: Yeah, indeed. Because for the kids it would be very difficult for them to see how this can be used. So we put together this very simple game to get their attention and also show them how it can be used.

GM: And were you surprised at how well the technology adapted itself to game play then?

BL: Yes. We were quite surprised at how well the kids liked this game. And the outcome is that we need to look into whether we can use it for the gaming industry and so on.

GM: So maybe licence this kind of technology to the games industry?

BL: Yes, we're looking into that to see if there's any room for that.

GM: And you must be on to something here. Because first of all Sony bought out that toy that you could plug into the Playstation which was a camera that could detect your movements. So that got gamers out of their sofas and moving around like idiots in front of their TV screens. And then of course the Nintendo Wii which has made gaming very physical. So this is definitely the way computer games are going isn't it?

BL: Yes, that's what we think and also we see from the kids' input.

GM: And from people coming in doing podcasts, which is actually just like a very flimsy excuse to come here and play games all afternoon here at Imperial. Well, Benny, thanks very much. It's fascinating stuff.

GM: Benny Lo in the Institute of Biomedical Engineering. And that's about it for this edition. There's more next month though including a dissection of the latest high-tech in training doctors.

Recording: Doctor can you come quickly. I need your help with this patient. His heart rate is going up and his blood pressure is coming down. I think we need to do something very quickly.

GM: So join me for that and of course we'll have the latest news from around campus for you. The official podcast of Imperial College is available on the first working day of each month and the next edition is due in December. What you've just been listening to is a co-production of the Imperial Press Office and the Science Communication Group. Thanks to Ozgur Buldum. He's the composer who lets us use this music called Lila in return for a little name check and of course a plug for his website which is at Two final name checks for you then: Gareth Mitchell, that's me, and the producer who puts all this stuff together, Helen Morant, Well I hoped you enjoyed today's edition. Do tell us what you think on our Facebook listeners' group. Just do a search on Imperial College in Facebook to find us. Right then that really will be all. Thanks for listening and goodbye