Engineering alumnus behind the UK's most popular paid-for visitor attraction

The British Airways i360Sheffield alumnus Dr John Roberts (BEng Civil & Structural Engineering 1969, PhD Civil Engineering 1972, Honorary Doctor of Engineering 2006) is one of Britain’s top engineers and part of the team behind two of the UK’s biggest visitor attractions: the London Eye and the newly opened British Airways i360 in Brighton.

The i360 is a viewing platform which rises from the Brighton seafront (opposite the remains of the West Pier) above the city, providing constantly changing views of the city’s streets and eventually out over the South Downs beyond, as well as along the coastline as far as the Isle of Wight. The project was conceived and delivered by the same team behind the London Eye, and the i360 drew inspiration and experience from that project.

Drawing on the success and fantastic public response to the London Eye (the UK’s most visited paid-for attraction) the team first conceived of the idea for the i360 in 2005. They wanted to recreate the Eye’s constantly changing views in a new location that would benefit the changing perspectives and unrestricted views. The team chose Brighton as the location and set to work planning how to deliver such an experience.

From there John led the engineering behind the tower which could lift a circular glass pod (capable of carrying 200 people) 162 meters into the air while remaining completely stable in the face of strong winds off the Brighton seafront. All of this and for the pod to rise imperceptibly, adding to the experience of providing ever-changing, intimate views into the streets and surroundings of Brighton.

To achieve this John and the team employed a variety of unusual engineering techniques to keep the inherently flexible tower rigid and stable in the wind. One technique, which had never been employed in the UK before, was to use ‘sloshing liquid dampers’ through the height of the tower. These dampers consist of sealed containers, half-filled with water, which, when the tower is impacted by the wind, deliver a compensating hydro-dynamic force in the opposite direction, keeping the tower steady and stable.

“One of the biggest challenges with this sort of project is that you don’t get a practice run.”

John explains

“With something on this scale you cannot build a test model, you have to do the research, build it, and ensure that it works first time.”

The British Airways i360

And by all accounts the work seems to have been a success, with visitors barely able to sense any sort of movement during the ride. Even during the windiest of days the pod has remained steady, providing spectacular views of the surroundings, while remaining isolated from the elements. What’s more, the British Airways i360 has been recognised by Guinness World Records as the World’s Most Slender Tower.

Dr John RobertsSince it’s opening on 4 August the public response has been extremely positive. As John explains:

“After waiting a year with the tower in place it was fantastic to see the queues of people ready to take their flight in the pod. Even better has been the brilliant response of people after the experience.”

As well as engineering the tower John is also part of the company which was formed to run the i360 going forwards. One of their key priorities is to make the project open to schools and students, to inspire the next generation of engineers. John has been spending time giving talks and demonstrations to students, from secondary schools up to degree level engineering. His hope is to reach students and capture their imaginations early so they can prepare themselves to go into engineering.

“For students who are inspired by this sort of engineering what I want them to understand is that there is no substitute for university education. Highly technical projects like the i360 need graduate level expertise in technical subjects, so I want to help make sure students are on the right track to courses to follow these aspirations.”

John completed his undergraduate and PhD at Sheffield and, after graduating in 1972, went on to work in structural engineering and design. He has worked on a diverse range of projects from motorway interchanges to what was once the world’s tallest, fastest and steepest roller-coaster. In 2006 he was awarded an honorary degree by the University, which he still maintains a strong connection with. He is currently an Executive Director of Operations at consultant Jacobs and Director / Chief Engineer of Brighton i360 Limited.

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