Aeronautical engineer of international renown who helped to develop the fastest helicopter in the world and pioneered driverless vehicles
Professor Martin Lowson was a leading British engineer whose work in three separate fields had, and continues to have, an impact across the world. From aircraft noise, to the systems and blades of the Lynx and EH101 helicopters, to small driverless pods that ferry passengers at Heathrow, he stood in a fine line of British engineers of innovation and influence.
Martin Vincent Lowson was born in Totteridge, Hertfordshire, in 1938, and was educated at The King’s School, Worcester. In 1955 he began an undergraduate apprenticeship with Vickers-Armstrong.
Returning to academia at Southampton University, in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, he gained a PhD in 1963. As a postgraduate student he was part of the Southampton team which achieved the world’s first authenticated instance of human-powered aircraft flight, when the team’s plane, the Southampton University Man-Powered Aircraft, took off at Lasham airfield in November 1961.
He carried this into aeroacoustics at the Institute of Sound & Vibration Research. Three of his 1960s papers — The Sound Field for Singularities in Motion, A Theoretical Study of Helicopter Rotor Noise and Theoretical Analysis of Compressor Noise — are considered to be of fundamental significance in the theoretical understanding of noise generation.
In 1964 he was appointed Head of Applied Physics at the Wyle Laboratories, Huntsville, Alabama. While in the US he worked on the Saturn V rocket for the Apollo programme; this experience led him in future years to reply to anyone saying, “It isn’t rocket science, you know” with the pithy, “Actually, rocket science is quite simple”. From 1969 to 1973 he was the Rolls-Royce Reader in Fluid Mechanics at Loughborough University.
Demonstrating a lifelong ability to switch from academic to commercial circles, in 1973 he was appointed Chief Scientist and later Director of Corporate Development for Westland Helicopters. He was a co-patentee of the BERP rotor system, which, mounted on a Lynx piloted by John Egginton, gained the world speed record for helicopters of 249.1 mph in 1986, which still stands today.
He was then appointed the Sir George White Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Bristol. The department, set up in conjunction with the Bristol airplane Company after the Second World War with Roderick Collar as the first professor, had gained an international reputation during the 1950s and 1960s. The department thrived under Lowson’s leadership and by the end of his tenure, its international reputation was secure.
He remained dedicated to research, and turned his mind from a lifetime’s consideration of air and space travel, to getting around on the ground. He set out to answer the simple question: Why do so few people use public transport? His conclusion, leading to the advent of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) systems, was to give individuals in urban areas nearly all the freedom of movement of the car without the burdens of driving, waiting, congestion or parking. In simple terms, what was needed to make public transport more attractive and efficient were small, computer-controlled systems of cars running on their own guideways, offering non-stop journeys — transport that waited for the passenger, the reverse of the usual experience. He set up a company, ULTRA, in 1995; won a grant from the Department of Transport to create a test track in the old docks at Cardiff; assembled a gifted team of engineers, and finally in 2005 persuaded BAA to award a contract to provide the transport system for passengers to transfer from the car parks to Terminal 5 at Heathrow. This has now carried more than 600,000 paying passengers, to general acclaim, and has twice the number of operating hours of Google’s automatic car. At the time of Lowson’s death, the company was close to securing a contract to provide the world’s first public transport PRT system in Amritsar in India.
Martin Lowson, engineer, was born on January 5, 1938. He died on June 14, 2013, aged 75
The article can be found on The Times website here