Research Council ‘Sandpits’

Sandpits are an increasingly popular choice for the distribution of Research funding by RCUK. I have just been part of an EPSRC evaluation exercise on Sandpits, so I thought I would dig some photos out of the archive and give an idea of what goes on, which I hope is helpful to those unfamiliar to this process.

PIC1: Participants at the 'Low Carbon Airports' Sandpit putting together the mind map at the end of day 1

I’ll deal with the application process in another blog, as it requires a different approach to conventional grant applications. My experience is with EPSRC sandpits, which are held in country hotels with large function facilities.

PIC1 illustrates the state of play towards the end of day 1 of the EPSRC ‘LowCarbon Airports’ Sandpit which was held towards the end of 2008. At this point, we had checked in, completed some ice-breakers, and in groups had started to brainstorm the issues associated with the theme. The yellow cards on the floor are the outputs of this process which are now being moved around and coalescing into challenges (PIC2).


PIC2: Part of the mind map relating to environmental issues

The process is one of the most intensive and tiring experiences. Starting at 9.00, the activities run generally until 18.00, however that’s when the hard work really starts, with clusters working long into the night. Actually in some cases, all night!.

Be prepared to do a lot of presenting! The ideas, as they coalesce are repeatedly presented by their champions and honed by criticism (both positive and negative) from the floor. It’s at these points that clear projects and project groupings start to emerge (PIC3).

Who’s there?

PIC3: A project definition and grouping starting to emerge at the Sandpit

There are generally three groups of attendees:

Academics who are the focus of the Sandpit

Facilitators – a professional team which runs the Sandpit and guides the process through its stages to fruition

Stakeholders – Industry and commercial interest groups are represented to maintain the applicability of the outcomes

Interestingly, in the background of PIC3 is a poster which I put up with points which are highly salient golden rules for Sandpit participants on all sides:

Stakeholders – ‘suspend disbelief’ in impracticalities

Issues – problems rather than solutions

Academics – ‘forget’ initial preferences and objectives – think outside the box

PIC4: L-R Prof Qing-Chang Zhong, Prof Edmund Burke and Prof Paul Stewart present on 'Integrating and Automating Airport Operations' which was successfully funded

All of which is intended to facilitate the creative process. By day 3, a number of projects have started to emerge, with a core set of champions, loose ‘memberships’ and plenty of ‘floating voters’. Essentially, there is a fixed budget for each sandpit, and open competition for funding, so the process is both collaborative and highly competitive. In this case, there was a budget of £3.4M, with 10 strong contenders emerging….

Roger Gardner, Sandpit Director and Director of the Omega Partnership addresses a project presentation session

Now the strategic ‘haggling’ between individuals and groups begins, as the competition increases to produce credible,fundable projects, and also to maximise individual involvement. A word of caution here is credibility. There is no difference between this part of the process and any other proposal procedure. Not only is a well thought out project plan with credible partnerships an absolute necessity, but also the crucial aspects of adventure, risk and most importantly ‘risk mitigation strategies’.

Unique to this process is that funding is allocated on the final day of the Sandpit, so all potential projects must be fully costed, with finalised members, objectives and project plans.

Prof Paul Stewart presenting the costed version of 'Airport Energy Technologies Network' which was successfully funded

There is no limit to the number of projects which you can propose, or the number of projects in which you can be involved. However there is generally a strong steer from the Stakeholders as to the preferred projects and groupings as they develop. Finally, the projects are ranked in preferential order, and a steer is given as to what adjustments need to be made to costings on the individual projects.

Roger Gardner, Sandpit director, giving out the good and bad news

In this Sandpit, 10 projects were proposed, with 7 being funded to a total of £3.4M. Three of the projects are currently running here at the University of Lincoln in the School of Engineering.

Most importantly, 19 out of the 22 participants came away with something to show for all the effort, ranging from studentships up to PI of large multi-centre projects.

Winners and losers: 7 successful and 3 unsuccessful proposals

All in all a very positive experience on the whole. In particular, the sandpit sparked multi-disciplinary, inter university collaboration which has acted as gearing for subsequent collaborative projects. all that’s left to do after the event is to make sure you get your full proposal in through the JeS system in time!

You can find out more about the funded projects via the Airport Energy Technologies Network (AETN) which is hosted in the School of Engineering at the University of Lincoln:

Airport Energy Technologies Network (AETN) LInk

The Lotus Free Piston Engine project story – people2

Simon Wilson setting up the motor control system in the engine test cells

Simon Wilson was in one of my 4th year MEng project groups at Sheffield Uni, and stayed on to read for a PhD with me on Temperature Estimation for Permanent Magnet AC Motors. Simon received an Industrial CASE award from Rolls-Royce Derby for the duration of his study. He can be seen here setting up the DSpace controller which supervises data acquisition and control for the engine.

Simon has subsequently joined EA Technology at Capenhurst as a consultant on new renewables technology.

Ed Winward setting up the control desk Labview front end

Next up is Ed Winward, who was working for Professor Rui Chen at Loughborough University. Ed designed and implemented the entire front-end for the free piston project in Labview (see picture left) which allowed us to start experimentation in earnest.

The best tribute to his part in this project is a YouTube video he made which documents an early run of the Free-Piston Engine

Youtube Free-Piston Video

The Lotus Free Piston Engine project story – people

Close up of the Free-Piston Engine, showing timing belt, cam boxes, cylinder head and combustion chamber

After delivery to the engine test cells at Loughborough University AAE dept., it took a significant amount of time to put together the control system instrumentation, and the control architectures necessary to run the engine under Labview, and DSpace.

This part of the story is the people behind developing this part of the project.

First up is Dr Ben Taylor, who at the time was one of my Post-Doctoral researchers at the University of Sheffield Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, and is currently a Research Fellow there in the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering. Ben designed and built the 100kW four-quadrant power converter which in the early stages of the project drove the permanent magnet servo-motor attached to the end of the tethering crankshaft. This arrangement allowed us to make the initial development happen relatively safely, without the danger of losing control and blowing up the engine. Later developments are untethered from the crankshaft and truly ‘Free-Piston’

Dr Ben Taylor connecting the 3-phase cables from the power converter to the PMAC servo-motor

Ben also designed the control system for the servo-motor, based around a TI Digital Signal Processor (DSP) which allowed accurate, real-time control of the motor currents, and position/velocity control of the motor, interfaced to a DSpace real-time controller.

Ben subsequently moved on to work for myself and Prof Chris Bingham on a RDA funded project on intelligent heating controls and methods for domestic houses.

The power converter which Ben designed and built is now in use driving the linear electrical machine embedded in the engine, whilst the drive of the crankshaft servo-motor has been take over by a custom designed four-quadrant inverter designed and installed by Control Techniques

Stage 1 development of the free-piston engine: engine and power converter.


Dr Ben Taylor with the control/data acquisition system

Major new KTP for the School of Engineering

Dr Jill Stewart, Senior Lecturer in Thermofluids in the School of Engineering has secured a 3-year KTP grant in collaboration with Napier Turbochargers Lincoln.

The project will develop a design methodology of turbocharger compressor impellers that are resilient to typical manufacturing tolerances thus maintaining efficiency and reducing manufacturing non-conformance cost.

The project is anticipated to commence in August 2011

Napier Turbochargers is a wholly self-owned company, having previously been owned by Siemens Power Generation, specifically Siemens Industrial Turbomachinery Ltd being based on the same site in Lincoln when it bought the neighbouring Alstom Power Turbines in March 2003; Alstom (former GEC-Alsthom) had owned the company since GEC bought English Electric in the late 1960s.

Best paper prize for School of Engineering academics

Institution of Mechanical Engineers headquarters London

Prof Paul Stewart and Dr Jill Stewart from the School of Engineering in collaboration with Dr Dan Gladwin from the University of Sheffield have been awarded the Charles Sharpe Beecher Prize by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers for their 2010 paper

Multi-objective evolutionary–fuzzy augmented flight control for an F16 aircraft. Proceedings of the IMechE, Part G: Journal of Aerospace Engineering, 224 (3). pp. 293-309. ISSN 0954-4100

The prize is awarded for the best paper on an aerospace subject published by the Institution in the previous year.

The paper examines the application of Artificial Intelligence techniques to the flight control system of the Lockheed Martin F16 Fighting Falcon. In particular, the modified controller aims to enhance the performance of the flight controller to reduce pilot fatigue during extended combat flight manoeuvres.

The F-16 is a single-engined, supersonic, multi-role tactical aircraft. The F-16 was designed to be a cost-effective combat “workhorse” that can perform various kinds of missions and maintain around-the-clock readiness. It is much smaller and lighter than its predecessors, but uses advanced aerodynamics and avionics, including the first use of a relaxed static stability/fly-by-wire (RSS/FBW) flight control system, to achieve enhanced maneuver performance. Highly nimble, the F-16 can pull 9-g maneuvers and can reach a maximum speed of over Mach 2.

The Prize will be awarded at the Annual General Meeting and Awards Ceremony at the IMechE London headquarters on 17th May 2011