Innovation in UK universities

British Universities have been at the forefront of innovation and inventions since their inception, including global breakthrough inventions such as penicillin and the MRI scan.

Today, 11th February, is 'National Inventors’ Day' and UK universities are still leading the way on solving global challenges. Let's have a look at some recent university-led innovations which have had a huge impact on the world.

Royal Veterinary College, University of Leeds & University of Brighton: Observing the flight of mosquitoes to drive the future of transport

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College and the other universities in the project studied how a mosquito avoids obstacles in the dark by sensing changes in air flows created by flapping its wings. Flying insects like mosquitoes move around by accelerating air around them which creates fast jets beneath each wing. These jets change shape in the presence of obstacles which helps them to avoid obstacles in their way. Researchers say that by looking at the flight of mosquitoes we can make aircrafts such as helicopters safer, especially in low visibility conditions.

Middlesex University London & the University of Bedfordshire : Investigating the impact of culturally competent robots on the elderly in care homes

Middlesex University London’s project CARESSES, which was the largest global study into the impact of culturally competent robots on the elderly, has had a hugely positive impact on elderly care residents. Researchers found that care homes that used culturally competent robots saw a significant improvement in their residents' mental health and there was a small but positive impact on loneliness. The research highlights that, whilst robots cannot replace humans, they can help to alleviate pressures on care homes and hospitals.

The University of Southampton: Optical Fibre Technology

The University of Southampton has made a groundbreaking contribution in the field of optical fibre technology. This technology now allows the internet to become available worldwide. The University’s work has been named in the UK’s 100 best breakthroughs for its impact on people’s lives worldwide. This technology is being used to navigate airliners, at the International Space Station, and to cut steel. Now the University is working on the next generation of optical fibre technology that will bring data transmission rates near the speed of light!

Cranfield University: Waterless toilet for the developing world

Researchers at Cranfield University, near Milton Keynes, have developed what they name the “Nano-membrane toilet”. It is a waterless toilet that will help provide safe and hygienic facilities in areas that lack sewage infrastructure. The discovery has been named in the Financial Times as one of the “50 ideas to change the world”.

The waterless toilet is designed for 10 users per day and has a lifespan of around 10 years. Dr Parker, lead researcher of the project, told Student Central that “The Nano Membrane Toilet has the potential to provide a safe, hygienic and dignified toilet for some of the 2 billion people who currently lack safe sanitation. At present, they are forced to use dirty public toilets or defecate in the open, so having a household toilet that processes waste into safe products on-site will be a huge benefit.”

The University of Greenwich: Work to tackle food shortage in Africa

The University of Greenwich has been recognised in the UK's ‘best breakthrough list’ for their effort to tackle food shortage in Africa. Cassava is a staple food for around half a billion people in the developing world but it has a short shelf life which causes 40% of the produce to be lost. The University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute (NRI), led by Professor Andrew Westby, has developed what they call the “NRI Cassava Bag" which has an integrated curing technology that extends the shelf life of Cassava for over 8 days. This, in addition to the University’s other efforts to support farmers in developing countries, has seen their incomes increase from the production of cassava.

Heriot-Watt University: Groundbreaking research to tackle homelessness

Researchers at Heriott-Watt University have produced groundbreaking research into the causes of homelessness that has transformed thinking in the field, and also the strategies to prevent homelessness. Before, experts in the field believed that homelessness itself contributed to the other forms of exclusion such as unemployment and socio-economic status. However, the University’s work on Multiple Exclusion Homelessness (MEH) shows that several problems lead to homelessness rather than starting after a person becomes homeless.

The research shows that the causes of homelessness are remarkably consistent - namely substance misuse and mental health problems. These insights have highlighted the central role of drugs and alcohol services, schools, and the criminal justice system in prevention strategies. Three years after the study’s publication, homelessness, as officially measured, almost halved in England. The University’s work has not only informed government policy-making in the UK, but also in the USA and Australia.

Imperial College London: Smart baby buggy

Researchers at Imperial College London started work on what they call a “smart baby buggy” after a student’s idea was brought to attention at a community event. Ramona (a student who has multiple eye conditions that compromise her sight) noticed that there was a lack of solutions for sight-impaired people to safely take their children in a buggy out and about. The baby buggy uses LIDAR - a form of laser technology found in self-driving cars and ultrasound sensors, that warn the user of any nearby obstacles or hazards through vibrations on the handlebar.

University of the West of England: Turning urine into electricity

The University of the West of England’s Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) has developed a system that turns organic matter such as urine into electricity that is enough to power lightning or charge mobile phones. However, its significance is beyond just powering these items. This technology would significantly accelerate progress towards next generation toilet technology that would serve some of the poorest communities in the world.

UK universities remain at the forefront of solving the most important contemporary global issues. Their innovation highlights the quality of our institutions across a wide breadth of research areas. Talented individuals from all over the world make our universities what they are today. UK universities are always looking to attract the best students from home and abroad. So, if you are considering studying in the UK, in whatever field that may be, we would be delighted to help you through the whole process.

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Haider Shah
Haider is a graduate in business management and has a strong interest in written content creation
Published on 11 February 2022
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