When we engage with students at universities, colleges and schools for STEM events we are often asked about our careers, how we got to where we are and what we are working on now. We also let students know about how to enter the world of engineering. However, increasingly students want to know about what exciting projects they might be involved with in the future. I took a quick poll of staff in Atkins and we came up with some interesting thoughts and challenges:
‘Floating’ cities and ports: As climate change continues to take effect and flooding becomes more of an issue our engineers see a need to create cities that rise with the water level; perhaps even creating communities that are entirely water-based. This will pose a challenge on the materials we can use as well as utilities, waste and transportation. However, such floating cities will have large upside benefits like self contained wave power generation and passive cooling. Perhaps ‘Boris Island’ will come to fruition as a new living space rather than an airport.
Interested disciplines: civil engineering, structural engineers, water and waste management, power generation, environmental management
Mars and Moon-based structures: When it comes to living on different planets there are many more questions than answers from our staff! What building techniques would be relevant for a moon-base and how would that differ from Mars? What are the telecommunications challenges in such a harsh environment? Are there ideas that will be developed from these communities that would drive new thinking on Earth, such as maximising resources and recycling everything? Does either the Moon or Mars have the right materials for manufacturing or would we need to take them with us? What would the life support systems look like? It is these sorts of questions that need to be answered through scientific research and engineering.
Interested disciplines: civil engineering, structural engineers, water and waste management, power generation, communications, environmental science
Robotics and automation: Robots have been working alongside humans for some time in manufacturing, but they have been largely single task and fairly static; we even build safety cages around them to prevent co-workers getting injured. Our design and safety engineers are very interested in the implications of robots becoming more mobile and taking more decisions that might affect us, such as surgical operations, driving our cars, carrying heavy objects, etc. But what issues might this raise? The mining industry, for example, has identified interesting emergent issues from automated trucks causing excessive wear and tear on road surfaces because they all continuously travel down the exact same path to centimetre accuracy! There are many applications for robotics, from health and social care to delivering the mail, and our human factors engineers are interested in how humans will really interact with such robots.
Interested disciplines: systems engineers, software and safety engineers, ergonomics and human factors engineers
Future City Form and Function: Our cities are becoming ever more populated, complex and intelligent. Our understanding of the way citizens interact with their city will need to be more sophisticated for us to really understand the relationships between the two. We think that there will be a revolution in how we analyse, design and build cities that takes into account all the disparate views, from sociology, planning, building, transport, communications and systems of systems engineering.
Interested disciplines: systems engineers, civil engineers and data scientists. And engineers will have to talk to sociologists!
Engineers and politics: Many of our engineers expressed the opinion that they would like to see policy and legislation driven by science and engineering rather than just politics. This would require the direct involvement of engineers. The engineering community is large and multinational with a growing influence that we think will exert itself more in the future. More citizens will feel engaged by engineering and engineers will be visible in the public eye. But how will they cope with this additional level of scrutiny?
Interested disciplines: all engineers!
A final thought:
All the ideas I have written about here are based on a short email poll I undertook in Atkins. However, it is worth noting that all the projects I describe are actually in progress. For example, the robot shown is the Atlas Robot prototype from Boston Dynamics (now owned by Google), MarsOne is a real project based in Holland and is already training astronauts, and the China Communications Construction Company is investigating floating cities (reported in the Telegraph in June this year).
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