16 September 2013

A flood risk scientist, whose groundbreaking innovations modeling flooding stem from his research while a student at Lancaster, returns in honorary role.

Rob Lamb, who is chief scientist at leading environmental engineering and risk company JBA Consulting, has kept up his links with Lancaster since his time as a PhD student in the early 1990s.

Keith Beven, who was my PhD supervisor, and Andy Binley were encouraging us to do some ambitious work using parallel computers for hydrological and groundwater modelling. It was computationally intensive work involving heavy duty number crunching,” Rob explains.

The research ran Monte Carlo simulations on parallel computers to provide new insights about the uncertainties in hydrological models, work which could only be done at the time on expensive, specialist facilities.

Ten years later, this early research experience helped Rob to spot an opportunity to adapt emerging, low-cost Graphic Processing Unit (GPU) technology from the video games industry and improve JBA’s flood risk models.

“That method – using GPUs – has become quite a well known technique for high performance computing nowadays, but it was still highly novel even as recently as 2005,” Rob said.

“Concepts that I learnt from my PhD work have fed in to research and development we have done at JBA, in understanding risk, managing scientific uncertainties about environmental models, and particularly in using new computing technology to do engineering calculations faster and in more detail.

“We now use GPUs to accelerate our flood plain hydraulic models, simulating the flow, depth and speed of water on a flood plain, and to generate core data sets for flood risk management.”

JBA now runs the world’s largest dedicated flood modeling grid and its flood mapping software reached the finals of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s prestigious MacRobert Award, which recognises products that combine technological innovation, community benefit and commercial success. 

When Rob left Lancaster he joined the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology for six years, before joining JBA Consulting in 2002 to develop industry based R&D.

He now spends part of his time running the JBA Trust, a not for profit foundation set up to support and promote scientific research, education and training in the fields of environmental risks and resources. Keith Beven, Rob’s Lancaster supervisor and mentor from 20 year ago, is a trustee.

“I kept up contact with Lancaster throughout, especially with Keith and with Jon Tawn in statistics. In last few years I have come back to working with Lancaster more and more. It is not the only university JBA works with, but it is one of our core partners,” Rob said.

Rob hopes his new honorary role will develop this partnership further. He intends to continue contributing to lectures, and there are plans to develop  joint LEC/JBA training, as well as research projects and student placements.