Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Wake-up Call: San Jose Airport's porous perimeter

 The teenager who climbed a fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport and expressed himself to Hawaii in a 767's wheelwell was the subject of some hilarity on talk radio, but the fact that he got over the perimeter fence and remained unseen for more than five hours was nothing but bad news. Airports everywhere should pay attention.
I'd have thought San Jose is above-average in intruder awareness. In 1975, following other assaults nearby, an armed man forced his way into the San Jose airport grounds with several hostages in tow and tried to hijack a 727 -- a desperate, murderous plan that ended when a police sharpshooter killed him with a single round.
Here's one reason I worry about future intruders hopping the perimeter fence (photo, Google Maps):
That's a FedEx cargo airliner in the photo, and it's parked at San Jose International not far from the passenger terminal. Anyone who gets onto the grounds undetected can just as easily climb aboard a cargo jet, and not just the wheel-well, either.
Cargo jets remain a major security concern for all of us, and not just because of their mostly-unscrutinized cargo. Their flight crews are very small, even on huge jets - and armed attackers wouldn't have to worry about the passengers organizing to strike back, as happened on Flight 93. As of 2010, long after 9/11, most cargo jets still didn't have hardened cockpit doors.
Twenty years ago this month, armed with a hammer, a single assailant (disgruntled FedEx employee Auburn Calloway, aboard as deadheading crewmember) came very close to commandeering and crashing FedEx Flight 705 out of Memphis. That was a DC-10 jumbo which, coincidentally, was scheduled to land at San Jose airport.
Both FedEx and UPS planes land at San Jose, and if hijacked, they're plenty big enough to destroy a skyscraper.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Immersion Course: Escaping from flooded helicopters

This is to provide a little more detail for my LinkedIn post last week, asking for survivors of helicopter ditchings to drop me a line, because I'm researching a magazine article on helicopter-underwater-escape training, or HUET.

The reason for the obscure business known as a HUET school is that an aircraft, once upside down, flooding, and sinking, presents scary challenges that must be managed quickly in order to survive. Advance preparation and the right equipment can add margin to the survivability zone

Across all aircraft types, helicopters are unusually top-heavy and therefore prone to roll over in the water. Here's a video of an Mi-14 crash off Japan; note how quickly it rolled after the main rotor hit the water and flew apart:


Let's say a helicopter has emergency pop-out floats; the floats may keep a ditched helo from sinking immediately, but those people in the cabin are still underwater and they'll soon drown if they don't get out.

Tens of thousands of people travel regularly over water in helicopters and small airplanes, hence the HUET market. Singer Jimmy Buffett attributes his surviving a Widgeon crash to ditched-aircraft training he took in a Navy program.
Courses vary in how much realism they pose, since higher realism means higher risk. To manage situations with elevated risks, schools put multiple safety divers in the water, right next to students.

A course at the lesser end of the realism scale could be classroom talks, a demonstration of survival gear, and a quick dunk in the pool. At the opposite end of the scale, and more for the military and USCG rescue swimmers, a facility's pool might have big waves, wind, several people having to use the same exit door in a dunker rig, and simulated entanglement on the way.

During our course at Survival Systems Inc., we had to get out of a blacked-out cabin that was upside-down and flooded. We worked up to abandoning a blocked exit and finding another door across the cabin.

While instructors assured us that the course was quite safe for students who followed directions, the training can be stressful for those of us who are scared of drowning. I came away from the course with bruised fingers and thumbs, having gripped things somewhat too hard while groping for exit handles. But the instructors were very good at taking us one step at a time, building confidence so that we didn't freak out as the dunker splashed down and water came up our noses.
HUET courses aren't about memorizing and then following a one-size-fits-all checklist. We were reminded frequently that to survive a helicopter ditching we'd have to get our bearings before loosening the seat belt, think clearly, and use the methods most appropriate to the situation.
For example, just because a survivor of a helicopter ditching has a small compressed-air SCUBA-like tank at her side (often called HEEDs) that doesn't mean she should always activate it, even if the cabin is flooding. Here's a HEED bottle (photo,

The time she'd need to get the HEED going -- say five to seven seconds -- might be better spent escaping on a breath-hold if she was sitting by an exit door. Also, that speeds things up for others who may need to use the same door.

The H-60 Black Hawk sinks like a rock once it's full of water, so time is of the essence. Instructors showed us a video of a CH-46 Sea Knight tumbling backward off the deck of an aircraft carrier: it vanished in a sheet of spray, going under in less than two seconds.
Though no single checklist of actions will cover all circumstances, here are three things to keep in mind:
  • Before takeoff, give close study to the exits nearest you. Some crashes come without warning to the passengers, so don't assume there'll be time to study up;
  • After a crash, don't give way to panic;
  • Don't ever give up.
So, repeating my request on LinkedIn: if you've escaped a flooded aircraft after a crash, feel free to drop me a line.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Ladder in the Road: A question for Google cars

The other afternoon during rush hour I was unpleasantly surprised to see a heavy extension ladder lying across my lane (the middle of three lanes), in heavy traffic moving at 55 to 60 mph. The first I learned about it was when a truck ahead of me swerved into an empty lane -- so there it was, leaving me a little less than two seconds to assess the situation and decide what to do.
 It's a good example of real-world decision making, where there may be no good choices, only less-bad ones.

What's a Google  self-driving car programmed to do in such a situation? While researching the topic of autonomous vehicles for my article on spacecraft and other self-driving systems, and in followup reading, I didn't see an answer to this in various articles about Google cars. (Diagram from The Economist):

I'm not as good as a Google car's ever-spinning LIDAR turret at monitoring all the cars around me, but I do keep my mirrors swung out so I can stay aware of where the cars are. The unpleasant choices I had, in my Google-less car:
  • Swerve into the left lane: No, there's a car in the way.
  • Swerve into the right lane: No, a car there too.
  • Hit the brakes and come to a tire-smoking stop on the freeway: Given the lack of warning, that posed a significant risk of being rear-ended. I'd do that for a pedestrian in the road, but not a ladder.
  • Drive right over the ladder: I could do that, but at the risk of tearing out something in the front end, flipping the ladder into the air, and losing control myself.
  • If I slowed to half speed I could let the car on my left pass, so I could get behind it, but there wouldn't be enough time to get myself fully in the left lane. But that would reduce the impact, since I could drive over just one end of the ladder. I could see that one end was mostly flattened already, by a previous impact.
The last option looked like the best so I did that, and barely managed to get through the problem without hitting anybody, ripping out my car's oil pan, or losing control. But it was a close-run thing.

So this question to the Google engineers: in the dozen or so Google cars now on the road each day, what's your algorithm for handling dangerous obstacles in the road, that are not visible to the LIDAR because of trucks ahead? 

And don't say "we'll just hand it back to the guy in the driver's seat, who'll have a half-minute to take over." That's okay for some problems like bad weather on the horizon, or road construction ahead, where twenty seconds is enough for an inattentive driver to come up to awareness, but not for a dangerous object just a few car-lengths ahead.

I come across a short-span crisis like this every year or two, and each needs an immediate decision that doesn't end in a crash. Novice drivers may not realize how very easy it is to lose control at highway speeds; it can happen just by tapping another car's bumper and then over-controlling, or by swerving too energetically for the speed.

And the results can be instantly disastrous: One minute you're zipping along at the speed limit, safe and sound; but lose control and suddenly, your car is rolling over and over and throwing things out the windows, including any passengers not belted in.

I understand that in the coming years, car-to-car communication might reduce the sudden-obstacle problem because cars will communicate about such things via a rolling WiFi -- that'll be a big help -- but in the meantime, what's the plan?

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Inhuman History of ROVs: Part 2

Continuing from Part 1, based on my history of ROVs for Invention & Technology:

= = = = =

Setting aside military trials (such as the US Navy, which lowered an undersea TV camera to check on A-bomb blast damage to shipwrecks near Bikini Atoll, and the British Navy, which used another to look for a sunken submarine), credit for the first civilian ROV probably goes to Dimitri Rebikoff of France. Frustrated by the fact that some Mediterranean wrecks were too deep for divers to investigate, he installed a camera in a pressure-resistant housing, added a water-corrected lens, and mounted it on a tether-controlled vehicle that he dubbed Poodle.
For extra treasure-finding skills, he added a magnetometer and sonar set. (ROV experts credit Poodle as the world's ROV, albeit an unarmed one. Having recently built a diver-driven, one-man underwater scooter called Pegasus for use by the Submarine Alpine Club of Cannes, France, Rebikoff had a head start in building Poodle's controls and power train.) On its first use in 1954, Poodle sent up video of two previously unexplored Phoenician wrecks, one 700 feet down.

U.S. Navy labs and Navy contractors built other camera-carrying ROVs, one of which was Snoopy, notable for its reliance on direct hydraulic drive, transferred from tender to vehicle through a long tether-hose (today's ROVs all rely on electrical power, as did the successor, Electric Snoopy).

The first ROV to hit the water with manipulator arms emerged from a US Navy laboratory in Pasadena, California: Cable-Controlled Underwater Recovery Vehicle, or CURV.
Originally tasked with bringing back torpedoes that failed to rise to the surface after test shots, CURV-I made international news in 1966 off Palomares, Spain, where an H-bomb had plummeted into the Mediterranean Sea after a bomber collision. The bomb was resting precariously on the lip of a steep slope in a skein of parachute shrouds, which for a few terrifying moments had tangled with the manned submersible Alvin when that craft had tried to attach lifting shackles. Though at 2,850 feet the bomb lay well below CURV's rated depth, CURV reached the spot without imploding and finished the rigging job. Seven years later, successor CURV III helped rescue the two-man crew of a submersible stuck on the sea floor off the Irish coast.

The Navy's Remote Unmanned Work System, fielded after CURV, was directed at search and recovery work.
Challenges overcome in its development pointed the way to today's work-class ROVs. “The Idea was to go to 20,000 feet with all the tools you needed to recover a black box,” said Wernli. This would give access to the great majority of objects on the ocean floor, since abyssal trenches are rare. The great depth could have posed a serious problem in cable handling: If connected directly to a boat on the surface via a single, thick cable more than four miles long, the ROV would have been at the mercy of any deep currents pulling at the line.
The solution was to use two cables: a strong umbilical line reinforced with Kevlar fiber that plummets straight down from the tender to a base station (called the Primary Cable Termination), hanging above the sea floor; and a lightweight and neutrally buoyant tether that's paid out horizontally as the ROV ventures off to work nearby.
This arrangement has been very successful, because it keeps cables from dragging along the sea floors, where the slightest turbulence will stir up a cloud of talcum-fine silt that blocks visibility for hours.
Work class ROVs use the same arrangement today, and it's what I saw when shadowing an Oceaneering crew on a drillship in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, the umbilical terminates at a strong metal cage that serves as a garage for the ROV when not in use.

The North Sea turned the tide in favor of ROVs. With exploratory wells having proven large reserves of oil and gas by 1970, and with oil prices high after the first oil embargo, production began in 1975. The conditions – undersea wellheads far from shore, and frequent storms – were so novel that by 1980, development and installation costs outran American expenses for the Apollo moonshots. Reserves estimated at 70 billion barrels kept them going.

The early years saw dozens of manned submersibles and hundreds of divers at work, with ROVs at the margin, little more than a curiosity, of doubtful reliability. Typical was the “flying eyeball” model, which kept its camera trained on a diver to monitor his safety. But by 1980, as abilities expanded and reliability improved, ROV fleets surged.
Although the North Sea fields are shallower than waters off West Africa, Brazil, and the Gulf of Mexico, it was a proving ground for critical advances: connectors that didn't short out in seawater, acoustic beacons for precise navigation around a sunken structure, robust manipulators, and high-quality video. Some of the most important developments at this time had less to do with ROV hardware and more to do with wellhead hardware.

“That was the big turning point,” said Wernli. “When [oilfield engineers] accepted they had to go deep, they started designing the equipment for that: how the subsea equipment would be operated, how valves would be turned. The key is that whenever would be needing an ROV there had to be standard docking so it could plug something in or manipulate something. In other words, they got the tooling in place.” As an example, if a valve needs turning, it's better to provide handles designed specifically for powerful, rotating claws than to expect the ROV to wield a crescent wrench.
On the Deepwater Horizon emergency-response spillcam sites, viewers could see ROV claws wielding shears, circular saws, and diamond wire cutters. ROVs can also carry drills, abrasive wheels, and jets to cut steel with high pressure water and abrasive powder. Such tools will be handy for deepwater decommissioning work, that costly day at the end of a well's useful life when oil companies are obligated by federal regulations to cut away old pipes, valves, and other sea-bottom steelwork for hoisting to the surface. The idea is that nothing will be left above the mudline, except those structures approved to serve as artificial reefs.
Decades from now such work might be turned over to AUVs, or autonomous underwater vehicles. AUVs are now restricted to going off on relatively simple missions, and must find their way back or surface to open up a temporary link via satellite. An AUV's job might include seawater sampling, surveys of the ocean floor preparatory to pipelaying, or minehunting for the Navy.
If given the ability to recharge along the way, AUVs can work for many weeks before returning. Oil companies have great expectations that, with time, AUVs can be promoted from surveys to detailed inspection of underwater equipment such as checking valves for proper function, and then move on to routine maintenance jobs. This will allow the more elaborate ROVs to focus on the complicated jobs, such as “workovers” of aging wells, and replacement of corroded parts and leaking packers.

While deepwater technology is often compared to space shots, the most intriguing development, to me, is how experience from the oilfields suggests that humans can't compete with robots when doing high-stakes work in dangerous conditions, when figured on a business basis. Yes, today's underwater "robots" are really remote-control actuators, depending on humans to control the details of each job at a safe distance, via levers and knobs.
But artificial intelligence is advancing on a fast track, and with each passing year robots will be given more authority to exercise judgment, based on how they interpret instrument readings and video images.
From what I hear, some of the most advanced autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) today are devoted to minehunting. Their job is to seek out sleeper mines on the seafloor, an anti-ship tactic quite likely to be used in the next major conflict.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Inhuman History of ROVs: Part 1

(The following is adapted from my article on ROV history for Invention & Technology Magazine).

= = = =

The emergency response to the April 2010 blowout over the Macondo well was a boom time for publicity about deepwater technology. At first, the camera feeds perplexed millions. Why hadn't they heard about any of this stuff, pre-explosion? The short answer is that ROVs spend most of their time working for the deepwater drilling industry, and that's a field that  prefers a low profile.
I first spent time with ROVs and their wranglers fourteen years ago, on a deepwater-drilling ship I was visiting for a feature article in Smithsonian.
Until the Macondo blowout, deepwater ROVs were over the horizon and out of mind. They resurfaced as supporting actors during James Cameron's Deepsea Challenger record-breaking stunt two years ago, and now ROVs are back in the news for a little while, assuming MH370 wreckage is found (... and I'm predicting it will be, in the general vicinity of 97E / 30S).
“It's like there are whole underwater cities down there, the installations are so big and complicated,” said Robert Wernli, a retired ROV builder for the Navy, about subsea oil developments. “And it's all installed remotely.”

No human eye can look down on the entire landscape we've been busy building down in the dark, but at least we know that these boxy underwater robots are the A-Team, in fact the the only team, when things need fixing in deep, dark places (Offshore Angola photo, BP):

But ROVs have worked such jobs before. ROVs plucked an H-bomb off a ledge in the Atlantic in 1966, snipped a Russian submersible loose from a steel antenna, patched up hurricane-ravaged pipelines, and (on numerous occasions) have helped lasso giant hunks of drilling equipment out of deep silt following mishaps above. In deepwater operations around the world, from Brazil to Asia, nothing can touch ROVs for doing yeoman's work at negligible risk to humanity: not divers in heated suits breathing exotic gas mixtures nor people riding around in little submersibles with claws and cameras.
While divers still offer a unique ability to wiggle into tight spaces and fix a problem by feel alone, they can't survive in deepwater fields. Even high-tech “atmospheric diving suits” -- hard-shelled suits with mandible arms – can't bring a diver deeper than 2,300 feet and that's at the cost of much human agility.

Common oilpatch wisdom once regarded ROVs to be economic only for jobs deeper than a thousand feet; divers would do the rest. Now, said Drew Michel, ROV consultant and adviser to the Marine Technology Society, the oil industry is hiring ROVs to do work in waters as shallow as 150 feet. This was once the exclusive domain of commercial divers. “We know what they can do now, and how to use them.”

Because water squelches conventional radio waves, the “remotely operated” aspect depends on a tether that bundles electrical and communication lines. While the operator can be floating nearby inside a tiny manned submersible linked by tether, the operator usually works from a control room aboard the specialized subsea-intervention vessel that hosts the ROV, on the surface. A typical ROV has two crews working in the background, each with three crewmen working 12-hour shifts.

Here's how an oilfield ROV's long night begins: up top, an ROV has been given the order to go over the side on a specific mission, say to replace anti-corrosion anodes at a pumping station in the Mississippi Canyon. Because each trip down and up wastes valuable time, mechanics make sure that all tools and new anodes it will need are sent along. Mechanics also ensure that the buoyancy of the ROV is right for the payload on board the 6,000-foot depth of the worksite.

With the ROV clamped securely inside a transport cage, safe from being jounced around, the rig rolls down a vertical track bolted to the ship. Along with its thick umbilical line, it vanishes under the waves in a cloud of bubbles. Having reached the end of the track and well below the worst turbulence, the cage unhitches from its track and begins the long plunge, hanging at the end of a heavy umbilical cable that provides all services of a tether, but is reinforced to bear the weight of ROV and cage. The winch operator stops the cage before it touches down at the bottom; this avoids stirring up silt each time the ROV returns to fetch another tool or spare part. To save valuable time, every aspect of the job has been planned and run on a simulator. Using the high definition TV cameras, the operator moves in and orders the ROV to get a grip on the nearest metal structure with one claw, and starts yanking old anodes with the other.
ROV movements need a high level of three-dimensional coordination during a complicated response such as wreck recovery or troubleshooting at a wellhead, where a half dozen can be on the job at once. In addition to all other work, someone must track their movements ensure that the ROVs don't get their tethers in a knot. (Upon command, or if contact is lost for an extended period, ROVs can cut their tethers and slowly rise to the surface to await rescue.)

In the pre-ROV era, any work at depth was done by divers wearing heavy suits of rubber, canvas and metal. They clomped along the seafloor in weighted boots, and even heavier helmets, supplied with air pumped through rubber hoses by tenders. Typical work, done at harbor depth, was bolting together underwater pipelines, repairing ships, and salvaging useful goods from sunken ships that could not be patched and raised.

Advances in SCUBA tanks and regulators, decompression equipment, and specialized deep-diving mixtures of hydrogen, helium and oxygen later made it possible to go much deeper.
Divers with the French company COMEX set a world record of 530 meters in one trial, but at enormous risk. Actual work was barely possible at half that depth, for brief periods followed by many days of decompression. (Sorry, Abyss movie fans: no divers ever went down to the sea with liquid-filled lungs -- there were experiments, but not with divers.)

But, says Drew Michel, such ultra-deep diving achievements lack practical meaning, given the risks and expense: “No oil company in their right mind would depend on such a dive,” he told me. Costs are fantastically high, the work cannot go continuously, and a single injury shuts down the entire work flow.

At first the limits of deep diving seemed to point toward the manned submersible, a mini-submarine out of which a crew would wield tools. In the mid-1960s high-tech corporations practically swooned over such machines, because (surely) they would open up the deeps to mineral exploration. And this was a time where nearly everybody worried about strategic minerals.
The mania over manganese nodules and other bounty touched even companies with no experience in the subject. American corporations investing in undersea tech included Westinghouse, Northrop Grumman, North American Rockwell, Lockheed, General Dynamics, Hughes Tool, and Litton Industries. “Every major defense contractor went into it,” said Robert Wernli, ”but after they found the certification requirements were so expensive to meet, most of the machines built went on blocks for display.” Even General Mills, maker of cake mixes and cereals, got into the act by applying for, and winning, a submersible government contract.

“Most of the companies entered because they saw Howard Hughes getting involved, but he was after a Russian submarine instead,” said Drew Michel, referring to the CIA-backed Hughes Glomar Explorer, aka Project Azorian (Photo, US Government):
Among the few craft launched were Alvin, started by General Mills, but finished by Litton (Photo, General Mills) ...
... and Beaver Mark IV, built by North American Rockwell, also known as Roughneck (Photo,
The builders equipped Roughneck with manipulators to serve as an undersea workboat that could install subsea oil and gas equipment in half-mile deep waters. Assuming that oilfield equipment would always need the human touch, most concepts for deepwater oilfields circa 1973, such as Exxon's, expected that fleets of diving bells and submersibles would shuttle workers from the surface down to steel capsules encapsulating wellheads and pumps. Workers would climb from submersible to capsule, carry out their jobs in “shirtsleeve” if claustrophobic conditions, and return to the surface.
ROVs would have played a minor part in such a human-centered plan (which is portrayed in Abyss, by the way).
While some experiments along this line were carried out, an entire infrastructure based on thousands of “subsea work enclosure” capsules scattered across the seafloor was neither safe nor practical. Until this was discovered (see Part 2), the unmanned subs now known as ROVs were merely a curiosity, and of interest only to the military, treasure hunters, and scientists.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Radarscope App, Highly Recommended

I don't make a lot of product recommendations, but lately have been trying out an iPhone app popular with those who chase storms (... or who are chased by them), Radarscope. It's $9.99, and well worth it.

Have been using it tonight to look at storms my Missouri relatives are seeing: most useful!

Users can select different NEXRAD stations, different radar frequencies, different tilt angles ... see storm tracks, and even draw on the screen.
The radar mode in use is SuperRes Reflectivity, tilt angle 3.