Showcasing the latest in Norfolk’s hi-tech talent

Hi-tech companies are being hailed as the potential saviours to wrest UK plc from the rocks of a double-dip recession.

Everybody loves them and Norfolk is particularly blessed with them. But have they got the firepower to help kickstart the economy?

At a recent Meercats and Avatars event in Cambridge, three Norfolk based firms were among those hoping to demonstrate that they could be part of the solution – and not only that but a low-energy one too. Not bad in a week which has seen governments strike a new climate change accord.

Included in the line-up at the Meerkats and Avatars event in Cambridge was Loddon-based EnLight advanced lighting technology, whose technology allows for the online control of street lights.

With some councils already turning off street lights to save money, EnLight believes it can provide a solution that slashes energy bills while actually improving the service we get from our street lights using the remote control of all street lights, so they can be lit and dimmed from a central point, and faults can be detected remotely, making an engineer's job more efficient.

David Aarons, managing director, said: 'If a street lamp is dimmed by 20pc you won't be able to detect the change; yet for every �5 you were spending on electricity you now only spend �4. Councils could save money by, for example, dimming their lights in the early hours of the morning when there are few people about. Our system gives them automatic control and enables them to save energy without turning off street lights.'

Extensive field testing has been completed and production is now under way with several local authorities already showing interest in trialling the unit.

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'Our system has great potential to reduce the time and money spent on sending engineers out to fix things,' he added. 'Tragically, every year street light engineers are killed or injured through electrocution. We allow diagnostics in the office that you currently need to do up a lamp-post, thus reducing safety concerns.

'We can tell, for instance, whether the fault is with the lamp-post or the mains supply. If the problem recurs at particular times, the engineer can be sent out then to ensure they are there when the fault occurs. The position of each lamp is overlaid on Google maps, and viewing the surroundings helps the engineer predict the kind of problem they may encounter. The system can be set up to send an email to an engineer whenever a fault is detected.'

Meanwhile, iBug Sensors, which has been developed among a team working at Norwich's John Innes Centre, has developed a tiny 'spy device' that can detect if medical samples have been damaged in transit and alert the scientist before work starts, saving thousands of pounds of wasted time and effort.

Jonathan Redfern, co-founder of iBug Sensors, said: 'Samples and reagents that have been thawed and refrozen cost lab workers a huge amount of time, money and frustration. Failed experiments can result in a phone call to a supplier saying 'your reagent was faulty'. In these cases, the supplier has little choice but to send a replacement.

'Suppliers currently have no control over how the product is handled while it is transported and can lose hundreds of thousands of pounds through damage in transit. iBug tracking acts as a guarantee for both the supplier and the receiver.'

The iBug has a range of applications. Insulin, for example, can be damaged if it is left in a hot car, but users need to have a supply permanently accessible. By using iBug as a temperature sensor, insulin users can be sure that their medication is safe to use.

The technology is also useful for samples stored within the laboratory; the life of the iBug doesn't end when the shipped product reaches its destination. Holding the reset button for 10 seconds allows it to be reused in the lab.

'I trained as a molecular biologist and see many opportunities for an iBug,' Mr Redfern added. 'For example, when a freezer breaks all the samples in it are often thrown out, even though some of them may not have warmed up too much. It's just not worth the risk of ruining an experiment. iBug allows the lab to quickly identify damaged stock. It's also common for other people in the lab to move your samples around, sometimes taking them out of the freezer while they rearrange things. When you come back to get your samples you have no idea that they had been warmed up.'

Future plans for iBug include adding a RFID chip to act as identification to produce an 'inventory of your fridge' and provide wireless communication of temperature profiles and warning alerts; other possible applications are adapting a blood bag so it contains a bug, and integration into 'smart-packaging'.

Another company which is a spinout from the University of East Anglia is Syrinix, which has developed a technology that uses 'vibro–acoustic signals' from the water mains pipe and analyses these sounds to enable leaks to be detected in their early stages and pinpoint their location

The technology is a 21st century update on the Victorian listening stick, and is set to revolutionise the detection of leaks in water trunk mains. Syrinix's technology provides a means to reduce the 3.3bn litres of treated water lost every day in the UK by making maintenance more cost-effective. The company has also been recognised with an 'Eco-Innovation Award' by ECOLINK+, an EU initiative to stimulate commercial uptake of clean technology.

James Dunning, chief executive of Syrinix, said that a small leak makes a distinctive sound which changes as it increases in size and severity.

The Syrinix system, called TrunkMinder, can provide early warning of the leak and its location, which will enable targeted maintenance to extend the life of the network.

'Control of water loss has been a concern since Roman times and traditionally listening has been a method of leak detection,' Mr Dunning said. 'The problem is knowing where to listen. Often the first the water authority knows about a leak is when the main bursts.'

'The result can be catastrophic, a recent burst in Accrington meant that hundreds of schools, homes and businesses were without water for more than 48 hours and 30 network engineers worked in shifts for 72 hours to fix the problem. Thousands of litres of water can be lost, devastating surrounding properties.'

He said TrunkMinder analyses information from sensors located along the pipeline. It is able to identify the signals created by leaking water and monitor these over time creating a body of intelligence about the health of the network. Although �7.5bn has been invested in infrastructure improvement in the UK over the last 10 years, leakage has increased.

'With TrunkMinder it would be possible to plan and prioritise future maintenance and make it more effective,' he said.