Biomimetic file 169: Robot Sea-Snake!

Why routines rather than punctual inspections can greatly reduce corporate risks

skynet snakeImage source: Kongsberg Maritime/Statoil. A catastrophic failure* is a sudden and total failure from which recovery is impossible. Catastrophic failures often lead to cascading systems failure. The term is most commonly used for structural failures, but has often been extended to many other disciplines in which total and irrecoverable loss occurs…

Highlight: “The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Kongsberg Maritime, and Statoil are developing  Eelume, a self-propelled, aquatic, mechanical serpent… Perfectly adapted to swimming through the water – rather like a real sea snake – it is designed to examine submerged equipment, regularly inspecting it for damage and undertaking simple maintenance tasks using inbuilt pincers and other small tools. If they’re in a hurry, they can use on-board thrusters for a speed boost…”

Insight: We know more about our solar system then about the deep parts of our own oceans! Attempts to explore the deeps have so far failed due to far too expensive technologies and difficulties to overcome the challenges, namely intense pressures and darkness. Rather than sending people in outdated submarines, the solution is clearly going towards automated unmanned vehicles. Because the current unmanned vehicles designs are limiting in movements and lifetime of the batteries it seems logical that the ultimate exploration devices would in fact mimic natural species living in these ecosystems in order to maximize the efficiency of movement but also to blend-in among other life forms. Perhaps in a near future an array of snake-like robots would be constantly patrolling the world oceans building up a world database (perhaps even discovering new species in the process) and mapping the reefs and seabeds. A new challenge for Google?

The above point of constantly patrolling can be applied to business. Failures in businesses rarely happen as the result of a sole mistake but are often an accumulation of failures (catastrophic failure*) which under specific unlikely situations can rapidly escalate to dramatic outcomes. The best way to prevent such an unwanted outcome is through routine checks.

Lets illustrate the above point with the following scenario: a small airplane company in South America operates a fleet of Dorniers (a two engine small-medium airplane carrier). Because of the small size of the company and very remote location in the Andes, this company is rarely subject to third party inspections in line with international aviation safety regulations and has developed a “relax culture”. The planes operate on a daily basis smoothly without issues until one day one plane undergoing a dawn flight suffers from an incident involving low visibility and unreliable instrument readings forcing it to undertake an emergency landing in a forested terrain. The outcome is severe: 10 dead and 15 survivors. After the crash inspectors from the US aviation Safety board NTSB are brought in to investigate the causes. After a few months the report comes out highlighting the obvious reasons for the crash: despite regular checks, this company has failed to implement discipline of its staffs to conduct consistent verification on its planes before all flights in accordance with regulations. During a recent overall checkup which was completed the day before the flight, sticky tapes were put to cover certain atmospheric pressure sensors on the left side of the aircraft and have been left behind after. On the morning of the flight, the technician on duty did not do a routine check which should have spotted the tape neither did the pilot. This simple sticky tape blocking air intake of the sensors has resulted in invalid information being sent to the cockpit instruments during the climb with regards to altitude and speed which has led the pilots in the limited visibility conditions to take the wrong decisions. In this case the series of events leading to the catastrophic failure can be summarized as: omission to remove a simple tape during routine maintenance; failure to undertake a routine check before the flight (2 times in a row from the technician then the pilot); bad weather and thus poor visibility; pilot errors in reaction to the unfolding events. All however relate back to this simple mismatch of a forgotten sticky tape which initiated this series of unfortunate events. It is no hazard that airline pilots undertake predefined checklists at different stages of the flights…

Are you involved with projects that require serious safety checks? If so, perhaps make sure that the most critical aspects undergo predefined stringent routine checks rather than once in while unplanned checks. This simple formality could avoid a catastrophic outcome…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species or natural systems on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

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