nicole ice awards 1 2019
Professor Nicole Metje with colleagues Matt Stringfellow and Giovanni Banks

We are delighted to announce that Professor Nicole Metje from the School of Engineering has recently won, for the second year running, the ICE West Midlands Awards in the ‘Studies and Research’ category for the Quantum Technology – Potential for Railway Infrastructure (QT-PRI) project, together with project partners RSK, Atkins and Network Rail. 

The judges were “particularly impressed with the use of nonintrusive new technology to help minimise disruption to railway passengers and improve maintenance efficiency.”  Joining Nicole on the evening of the awards were colleagues Matt Stringfellow from RSK and Giovanni Banks from Atkins.  QT-PRI has combined years of collective experience and new research into a novel sensing technology to detect and assess the condition of assets buried below the railway network.  

Network Rail was the driver for the project, who have identified a number of ‘drainage challenges’ which need to be addressed to allow proactive condition assessment thereby maximising the limited resources and keeping the rail network operational. There are over 190,000 railway earthworks and over 6000km buried assets.  Failures are often reported by train drivers or by walking the asset. Knowledge of the location and condition of existing assets (drains and geotechnical) allows a performance measure of the overall system, leading to better asset management and evaluation of capacity while maximising the limited resources keeping the rail network operational. The railway environment is uniquely challenging due to its often remote location with poor access as well as the number of stray electromagnetic signals radiating out from other buried assets controlling signals, points etc.

Currently, geophysical sensors are commercially used to detect the location of the ducts below roads and with limited success on the railways.  Existing sensing technologies were trialled at Network Rails’ Drainage Theatre.  QT-PRI demonstrated clearly that gravity surveys are suitable for the railway assets which are not detectable using other sensing technologies.  QT gravity sensors are capable of overcoming existing limitations with traditional gravity sensors (mass on a spring): mainly their sensitivity and importantly, their deployability.  On a railway track, surveys need to be fast due to limited possession, ideally be deployable at walking speeds and faster.

nicole ice awards 2 2019

QT-PRI brought together the expertise from RSK as a geophysical survey specialist, Atkins as a consultant managing our critical infrastructure, Network Rail as an infrastructure owner with national responsibilities to keep the railway network running as well as the University of Birmingham who lead the quantum gravity gradiometer sensor development as part of the UK National Quantum Technology Hub for Sensors and Metrology.

QT-PRI surpassed expectations by:

  • Highlighting the use of existing geophysical sensing technologies for railway applications,
  • Clearly demonstrating that information from multiple sensors can outperform information based on a single technology
  • Detecting badger setts using gravity sensors for the first time helping with maintenance planning
  • Clearly identifying additional assets, which are only detectable using QT gravity sensors.
  • Making the business case and identifying the ROI using gravity sensors

All of this significantly contributes to the ongoing developments of quantum gravity gradiometer sensors.   There is a clear gap for these sensors and the collaboration now provides future test beds and ensures the accelerated uptake of the technology.

Professor of Infrastructure Monitoring and Head of the Power and Infrastructure Research Group, Nicole Metje commented, “I am delighted to win the Studies and Research category for the second year in a row demonstrating the wide range of impact of our research.  This year was special as I could celebrate with two of my project partners from RSK and Atkins.  It is also a recognition of the potential of our work on quantum technologies to make a real difference in revealing the subsurface”

Further success from the University of Birmingham came through former student Becky Drew, who received the Chair’s Award “for the person who deserved special recognition” for outstanding effort and contribution to her research field.  Becky is a graduate and ICE member who has shown exceptional commitment to engineering in the region.  The award was to recognise not only in her work involved with the ICE but the wider work as an Alumni Ambassador for the University, sitting on the STEM focus group for Curtins, running graduate training activities within the office and additional office activities. Since graduating in 2017 from the University of Birmingham, Becky has worked as a Graduate Structural Engineer at Curtins.  Within ICE West Midlands, Becky has already been Secretary of the Graduates and Students Committee and is now Senior Vice Chair.”

becky and nicole ice wards 2019

Speaking about her experience, Becky discussed her involvement with ICE, “One of the most important things to me when I started as a graduate was to sign up to the ICE Training Scheme with Curtins so that I could start working towards my chartership.  I also decided to become involved with the regional Graduates & Students committee; my first meeting turned out to be the AGM so I ran and was elected Secretary. I’ve been on the G&S committee for nearly two years now having become Senior Vice-Chair this year and will become Chair in October for the new committee year. It was very much a case of saying yes to every opportunity, which is how I ended up covering secretary duties on the Regional Committee for a year which was a great chance to network and learn more about the ICE do in the region”.  

becky ice awards 2019

Commenting further on the work involved, Becky added, “I’ve been an ambassador for the School of Engineering ever since I was an undergraduate and became a ‘Class of 2017’ ambassador upon graduating. I often return to the University to speak at outreach events run by the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences such as summer schools as well as helping out on open days to give applicants an idea of life in the industry.  I regularly volunteer at STEM events such as the Big Bang Fair and ICE events. In the office, I help out with anything from running the Graduate Group to improve technical knowledge and regularly arrange team socials."   

To Becky’s surprise on receiving the award, she commented, “I was really not expecting to receive such a special award and it was really heart-warming to be recognised for everything that I do in my career, especially so early on in it. I choose to do all these activities outside of my day-to-day work as I feel they not only benefit me as an engineer but also give something back to a university that supported me through my degree, to the company that gave me so many opportunities and an industry that I enjoy being a part of”.