Article - Issue 52, September 2012

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The opinion piece by DrGordon Woo, Catastrophe risk engineering (Ingenia 51), made many important points. These included the mythical concept of ‘absolute safety’ which needs to be dispelled. We need to dissuade decision-makers and politicians from restating dangerous platitudes about 100% public safety.

Dr Woo, quite rightly in our view, promotes systematic and rigorous risk engineering. He calls for continuous vigilance to avoid those already rare incidents and develop improved resilience to new types of vandalism such as the theft of copper cables. He also promotes the habit of drawing up risk registers as a useful way of identifying future risks at all levels from small projects to national government.

The Blackett Review, which Dr Woo participated in and refers to, is the problem of managing high impact low probability risks. Dr Woo seems, in his article, to endorse the idea that risks and costs are separate alternatives to be balanced, as on a pair of scales. We submit that this approach can be misleading and that, indeed, risk can be reduced at the same time as cost is reduced.

For example, the provision of safe access to working at height can both reduce cost and improve safety, because it can improve manpower efficiency and effectiveness as well as reduce cost and disruption from accidents. We believe that risks and costs should be managed as one. The answer does not lie in ‘a comparative quantification of the respective costs and benefits of risk mitigation’, important as that may be. Such analysis is necessary but it is by no means sufficient for good risk management.

Furthermore, in any complex system there will inevitably be emergent properties that have not been anticipated. Some of these may turn out to be beneficial and represent opportunities for unexpected benefits. Some may be detrimental and require actions to prevent them developing into a catastrophe.

We believe that an important point that should come out of the Blackett Review is that it is essential to put in place resilient and adaptive processes to identify and deal with unanticipated outcomes early enough to prevent them ‘incubating’ into failures. We need to have the wisdom to recognise and make contingencies for what we do not know. Organisations need to develop a vigilant learning culture in which these processes can be embedded.

Professor Patrick Godfrey FREng
Professor of Systems Engineering, University of Bristol

Professor David Blockley FREng
Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Bristol

The designers of the Ghost trainer demonstrating its operation. The device uses highly flexible strain sensors to detect joint angle and provides instant vibration and audio feedback to improve technique in upper-limb sports

The designers of the Ghost trainer demonstrating its operation. The device uses highly flexible strain sensors to detect joint angle and provides instant vibration and audio feedback to improve technique in upper-limb sports


The article Paralympic technology (Ingenia 51) gave some excellent examples of how engineering is able to improve performance at an elite level in paralympic sports. The ‘running blades’ are just one set of technologies that received a great deal of attention during the London 2012 Olympics and will continue to do so post-Games.

The aspect that I found exciting, and which is part of the wider impact of technology use, is the potential it has to increase participation in sport by people with disabilities and allow them to engage in ways that were not previously possible. At Imperial College London, we have been running the Rio Tinto Sports Innovation Challenge where students have been developing their own design solutions for paralympic sports.

There already exist high-end prosthetic devices that use muscle electromyographic (EMG) signals to drive artificial hand function. A logical extension for such systems is to integrate them with sporting equipment such as bikes or wheelchairs. Imperial students have been working with EMG to change the gears on a bike (flexing one muscle to change up and another to change down), thus reducing the number of controls that an amputee athlete would have to operate with a single hand.

In addition to expanding involvement in current sports, the Innovation Challenge looked to the creation of completely new ones as well. For example, ‘Brainsled’ was a concept that envisaged an athlete using only their brain signals to steer a bobsled down a run. Although still at the prototype stage, the technology to build the device is readily available and could have many other applications.

Opportunities exist not just for enhancing technology used during competition but also for training aids and feedback devices for athletes. There are a number of sports in which this area is still fairly limited (in visually impaired sports for example) which led to the development of our ‘Ghost’ training tool (see image). This is a device worn on the arm that monitors joint position and gives audio and vibration feedback according to waypoints set by a coach. Although originally intended for land-based training in swimming, it could be applied to almost any upper-limb sport.

As the Ingenia article pointed out though, not all solutions need to be high-tech. We had feedback from paralympic athletes suggesting that there are many areas that could benefit from simple solutions. An example of this was ‘Rainbow Touch’, a colour-to-texture translation system – essentially a coating applied to team clothing – to help visually impaired athletes identify both their team and their opponents through touch.

Paralympic sports offer many interesting avenues for research and innovation. The challenges we posed our students have created a wealth of exciting concepts at levels from second year undergraduate through to the MSc course. We feel that some of the developments we make will not only benefit sportspeople but will have a trickle-down effect that will benefit those in the wider community who have disabilities.

Dr Dominic Southgate
Rio Tinto Sports Innovation Challenge Project Manager
Imperial College London


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