The sky’s the limit

Prof Andrew RaeBy Professor Andrew Rae
Professor of Engineering at the University of the Highlands and Islands

When I was about eight years old, I came to understand that being Batman was not an achievable career choice. It was a sad day for me, but this ‘Road to Damascus’ moment (or perhaps, more properly, this ‘Road to Gotham’ moment) had a silver lining. I was (and still am) a complete aviation anorak so I settled on the thought that I’d like to design aeroplanes for a living. (When I was eight, Batman was not the dark knight of the modern blockbusters, but the somewhat more cringe-worthy “Biff!”, “Bam!” and “Kapow!” of the recently departed Adam West, so I think I made the right choice.) 

After leaving university, I spent 22 years in industry playing with aeroplanes, racing cars and a wide variety of other entertaining applications. During that time I engaged with universities on a number of levels, from large funded contracts, through to small seed-corn research investigations, often using final-year project students. This latter activity also acted as six-month job interviews and was wonderfully helpful in recruiting with confidence the good students as new members of staff.

When I jumped to academia, I knew that it had to be to an institution which was dynamic and whose processes would support the more demanding requirements of working with industry and the often ‘sporty’ timescales. I have not been disappointed. Collaborations with industry bring a number of benefits to the university including: the provision of real-world problems which can turn theory into practice; further opportunities for staff and students to work within formal engineering frameworks (such as lifecycle management) and some really diverting problems!

The added joy of Interface projects is the opportunity to support local industry and local communities. Working predominantly in the Highlands and Islands has brought an eclectic series of applications, including novel ideas for improving the financial cost and environmental impact of scallop fishing, several aspects of adventure tourism and, most recently, the effect of weather on certain infrastructure in the Cairngorms National Park. These applications are a world away from hubris of racing cars in Monaco and thankfully so. They present significant technical challenges, provide immediate and tangible benefits, and possess an emotional resonance that makes them exceptionally rewarding.

However, I think that the main challenge can come in formulating that problem in the first instance. It is often tricky for those within large institutions (such as a university) to understand the breadth of capability within it, let alone someone from outside, and to appreciate how other disciplines might be commandeered to provide an holistic approach and (perhaps) a more far-reaching solution.  I really enjoy the initial conversations with those seeking our support; the journey towards a plan of action can change direction drastically as both sides improve their understanding, explore wider capability, and then narrow down the range of possible solution scenarios. As with any engineering project, capturing the requirements is crucial; there’s no point having a brilliant solution to the wrong question!

 

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