Redundancy – a Life Saver in Diving and Aviation

Photo taken from the author’s aircraft one stormy Florida Panhandle morning. (click to enlarge)

I was recently flying a private aircraft down the Florida Peninsula to Ft. Lauderdale to give a presentation on diving safety. As I continually checked the cockpit instruments, radios and navigation devices, it occurred to me that the redundancy that I insist upon in my aircraft could benefit divers as well.

In technical and saturation diving, making a free ascent to the surface is just as dangerous as making a free descent to the ground in an airplane, at night, in the clouds. In both aviation and diving, adequate redundancy in equipment and procedures just might make life-threatening emergencies a thing of the past.


As I took inventory of the redundancy in my simple single engine, retractable gear Piper, I found the following power plant redundancies: dual ignitions systems, including dual magnetos each feeding their own set of spark plug wires and redundant spark plugs (two per cylinder). There are two sources of air for the fuel-injected 200 hp engine.

There are two ways to lower the landing gear, and both alarms and automatic systems for minimizing the odds of pilot error — landing with wheels up instead of down. (I’ve already posted about how concerning that prospect can be.)

I also counted three independent sources of weather information, including lightning detection, and two powerful communication  radios and one handheld backup radio. For navigation there is a compass and four electronic navigation devices: one instrument approach (in the clouds) approved panel mount GPS with separate panel-mounted indicator, an independent panel mounted approach certified navigation radio, plus two portable GPS with moving map displays and superimposed weather. Even the portable radio has the ability to perform simple navigation.

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There’s two of just about everything in this Arrow panel.

The primary aircraft control gyro, the artificial horizon or attitude indicator, also has a fully independent backup. One gyro operates off the engine-powered vacuum pump, and the second gyro horizon is electrically driven. Although by no means ideal, the portable GPS devices also provide attitude indicators based upon GPS signals. In a pinch in the clouds, it’s far better than nothing. Of course, even if all else fails, the plane can still be flown by primary instruments like rate of climb, altimeter, and compass.

There is only one sensitive altimeter, but two GPS devices also provide approximate altitude based on GPS satellite information.


But what about divers? How are we set for redundancy?

Starting with scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), gas supplies are like the fuel tanks in an aircraft. I typically dive with one gas bottle, but diving with two or more bottles is common, especially in technical diving. In a similar fashion, most small general aviation aircraft have at least two independent fuel tanks, one in each wing.

The scuba’s engine is the first stage regulator, the machine that converts high pressure air into lower pressure air. Most scuba operations depend on one of those “engines”, but in extreme diving, such as low temperature diving, redundant engines can be a life saver. While most divers carry dual second stage regulators attached to a single first stage, for better redundancy polar divers carry two independent first stages and second stages. Two first stage regulators can be placed on a single tank.

An H-valve for a single scuba bottle. Two independent regulators can be attached.
Two Regs
A Y-valve for Antarctic diving with two independent scuba regulators attached.













Even then, I’ve witnessed dual regulator failures under thick Antarctic ice. The only thing saving that very experienced diver was a nearby buddy diver with his own redundant system.

There is a lot to be gained by protecting the face in cold water by using a full face mask. But should the primary first or second stage regulator freeze or free flow, the diver would normally have to remove the full face mask to place the second regulator in his mouth.

Two regulators, one full face mask. Photo courtesy of Michael Lang and Scuba Pro.

Reportedly, sudden exposure of the face to cold water can cause abnormal heart rhythms, an exceedingly rare but potentially dangerous event in diving. If the backup or bail out regulator could be incorporated into the full face mask, that problem would be eliminated. The photo on the right shows one such implementation of that idea.


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Nikki Smith, rebreather diver with open circuit bailout in her right hand. Photo courtesy of Rosemary E Lunn (Roz), The Underwater Marketing Company.

Rebreathers are a different matter. Most rebreather divers carry a bailout system in case their primary rebreather fails or floods. For most technical divers, that redundancy is an open circuit regulator and bailout bottle. However, there are options for the bail-out to be an independent, and perhaps small rebreather. (One option for a bail-out semiclosed rebreather is found here.) Such a bail-out plan should provide greater duration than open-circuit bailout, especially if the divers are deep when they go “off the loop”.

U.S. Navy photo by Bernie Campoli.

For some military rebreather divers, there is at least one complete closed-circuit rebreather available where a diver can reach it in case of a rebreather flood-out.

A commercial saturation diver with semi-closed rebreather backpack as emergency bail-out gas.

For deep sea helmet diving, the bail-out rebreather is on their back and a simple valve twist will remove the diver from umbilical-supplied helmet gas to fresh rebreather gas.

The most common worry for electronically controlled rebreather divers is failure of the rig’s oxygen sensors. For that reason it is common for rebreathers to carry three oxygen sensors. Unfortunately, as the Navy and others have noted, triple redundancy really isn’t. Electronic rebreathers are largely computer controlled, and computer algorithms can allow the oxygen controller to become confused, resulting in oxygen control using bad sensors, and ignoring a correctly functioning oxygen sensor.

The U.S. Navy has performed more than one diving accident investigation where that occurred. Safety in this case can be improved by adding an independent, redundant sensor, by improving sensor voting algorithms, by better maintenance, or by methods for testing all oxygen sensors throughout a dive.

In summary, safe divers and safe pilots are always asking themselves, “What would I do if something bad happens right now?” Unfortunately, private pilots and divers quickly discover that redundancy is not cheap. However, long ago I decided that if something unexpected happened during a flight or a dive, I wouldn’t want my last thoughts to be, “If only I’d spent a little more money on redundant systems, I wouldn’t be running out of time.”

Time, like fuel and breathing air, is a commodity you can only buy before you run out of it.

Separator smallDisclaimer: This blog post is not an endorsement of any diving product. Diving products shown or mentioned merely serve as examples of redundancy, and are mentioned only to further diver safety. A search of the internet by interested readers will reveal a panoply of alternative and equally capable products to enhance diver safety.

Cold Water Regulator Blues

It’s a black art, the making of scuba regulators for use in polar extremes; or so it seems. Many have tried, and many have failed.

Once you find a good cold water regulator, you may find they are finicky, as the U.S. Navy recently discovered. In 2013 the Navy invested almost two hundred hours testing scuba regulators in frigid salt and fresh water. What has been learned is in some ways surprising.

Looking at a pony bottle that saved a diver when both his independent regulator systems free-flowed at over 100 feet under the thick Antarctic ice.

DSCN3557cropThe Navy has been issuing reports on cold water regulator trials since 1987. In 1995 the Navy toughened its testing procedures to meet more stringent diving requirements. Reports from that era are found at the following links (Sherwood, Poseidon).  (Here is a link to one of their most recent publicly accessible reports.)

The Smithsonian Institution and the Navy sent this scientist to the Arctic to help teach cold water diving, and to the  Antarctic to monitor National Science Foundation and Smithsonian Institution funded trials of regulators  for use in the under-ice environment. What those studies have revealed have been disturbing: many regulator models that claim cold water tolerance fail in the extreme environment of polar diving.

The Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) has developed testing procedures that are more rigorous than the EN 250 tests currently used by European nations. (A comparison between US Navy and EN 250 testing is found on this blog). All cold water regulators approved for U.S. military use must meet these stringent NEDU requirements.

Nevertheless, we learned this year, quite tragically, that the Navy does not know all there is to know about diving scuba in cold water.

For example, what is the definition of cold water? For years the U.S. and Canadian Navies have declared that scuba regulators are not likely to freeze in water temperatures of 38° F and above (about 3° C). (The 1987  Morson report identified cold water as 37° F [2.8° C] and below). In salt water that seems in fact to be true; in 38° F scuba regulators are very unlikely to fail. However, in fresh water 38° F may pose a risk of ice accumulation in the regulator second stage, with resultant free-flow. (Free-flow is a condition where the gas issuing from the regulator does not stop during the diver’s exhalation. Unbridled free flow can quickly deplete a diver’s gas supply.)

The regulator on the left free-flowed, the one on the right did not.

While a freshly manufactured or freshly maintained regulator may be insensitive to 38° F fresh water, a regulator that is worn or improperly maintained may be susceptible to internal ice formation and free-flow at that same water temperature. There is, in other words, some uncertainty about whether a dive under those conditions will be successful.

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An isolator valve that can be shut to prevent loss of gas from a free flowing regulator.

That uncertainty can be expressed by a regulator working well for nine under-ice dives, and then failing on the tenth. (That has happened more than once in Antarctica.)

That uncertainly also explains the U.S. Antarctic Program’s policy of requiring fully redundant first and second stage regulators, and a sliding isolator valve that a diver can use to secure his gas flow should one of the regulators free flow. There is always a chance that a regulator can free flow in cold water.

A key finding of the Navy’s recent testing is the importance of recent and proper factory-certified maintenance.  Arguably, not all maintenance is created equal, and those regulators receiving suspect maintenance should be suspected of providing unknown performance when challenged with cold water.

This finding points out a weakness of current regulator testing regimes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Typically, only new regulators are tested for tolerance to cold water. I know of no laboratory that routinely tests heavily used regulators.

Weddell seal on the Antarctic sea ice. Photo copyright Samuel Blanc. (From Wikimedia Commons).

Considering the inherent risk of diving in an overhead environment, where access to the surface could be potentially blocked by a 1400 lb (635 kg), 11 foot (3.4 m) long mammal that can hold its breath far longer than divers can, perhaps it is time to consider a change to that policy.

About to descend through a tunnel in 9-feet of ice on the Ross Ice Shelf.


A huge Weddell Seal blocks the diver’s entry hole. He looks small here, but like an iceberg, most of his mass is underwater.



Maximum Parsimony – In Diving and the Cosmos

Image credit: Niko Lang and Booyabazooka

I admit it, my early training in physics has made me irritatingly sensitive to the principle of parsimony.

Parsimony, pronounced similarly to “alimony”, can be summed up by the following: the simplest approach to understanding nature should be considered before contemplating a more complicated line of reasoning. In a famous example, it is more probable that planets, including the Earth, orbit around the sun than the visible planets and the sun orbit around the Earth. Of course, in a different time that probability was not obvious to the common man. But then they hadn’t been thinking about parsimony.

Thank-goodness someone (Nicolaus Copernicus) did.

In the search for habitable exoplanets (planets outside of our solar system), the following statement was recently made by astronomer Steve Vogt in response to a storm of skepticism about a potentially habitable planet. “I do believe that the all-circular-orbits solution is the most defensible and credible,” he said. “For all the reasons I explain in detail … it wins on account of dynamic stability, goodness-of-fit, and the principle of parsimony (Occam’s Razor; in Latin, lex parsimoniae).”

William of Occam (also Ockham) was an English theologian of the 14th century. He did not invent the premise behind his razor, but he famously used it to slice through the complicated philosophies of the day and rebut them by an unfaltering demand for simplicity over complexity.

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Medical students are taught essentially the same principle, albeit using different words: “When you hear hoof-beats, don’t think of zebras.” Wise physicians know that occasionally zebras do show themselves, but they should not be the first thought when a patient presents with unusual symptoms.

If simplicity is to be generally preferred over complexity, then an example in the diving literature comes to mind. This example annoys me to no end, but I’m slowly coming to terms with it. It is the growing popularity of referring to the respiratory effort required to breathe through a scuba regulator or a closed-circuit underwater breathing apparatus (a rebreather) as work (in joules, J) per tidal volume in liters, L.

When work in joules (J) is divided by volume (L), dimensionally the result is pressure (kiloPascals, kPa). To be exact, what is often called work of breathing in diving is actually the average pressure exerted by a person over the entire volume of a breath. The principal of parsimony says that if it is a pressure, if it has units of pressure, then we should call it a pressure (kPa)  and not something more complicated, such as Work of Breathing specified with units of J/L.

The light grey ellipsoidal area within this pressure-volume loop is equal to the work (J) of breathing for that breath.

(Examples in the regulatory diving literature correctly using Work of Breathing with units of joules can be found in early editions of NATO STANAG 1410. EN250:2000 is an example using the units of J/L for work.)

I find in my dealings with non-respiratory physiologists, that the concept of work of breathing is difficult to grasp since mathematically it involves a definite integral of pressure over a change in volume. I have made various attempts to simplify the concept, but I still find knowledgeable medical professionals misunderstanding it. In fact, mathematical integrals seem to be as frightening to most physicians as poorly dissected cadavers would be to laymen. Even engineers who certainly should grasp the intricacies of work and power end up confused.

I’m sure it adds to the confusion when some diving physiologists speak in quotients. For example, since a cubit is a length of 48 cm, and a hectare is 2.47105 acres, you could describe a person’s height as 165,400 cubic cubits/hectare. Dimensionally, that would be correct for a six foot (1.8 m) tall individual. However, most people would prefer the units of feet or meters rather than cubic cubits per hectare. Certainly, the simpler description is far more parsimonious than the former.

The shaded area within this triangle is equal to the “Work” inside the previous P-V loop. By dividing by tidal volume, you obtain the average mouth pressure on the vertical axis.

For the same reason, it makes more sense to speak of a descriptor with units of pressure as simply pressure (kPa) rather than a quotient of work per liter (Joules/L).

If describing a simple parameter like pressure as a quotient is not defensible scientifically, is it defensible psychologically?

Maybe. The U.S. Navy has used terms like “resistive effort” to convey the impression that a volume-averaged pressure is something that can be sensed by a diver. To breathe, divers have to generate a pressure in their chest, and that pressure generation requires effort.

“Effort” is admittedly not a hard-science term: it doesn’t even pretend to be. However, the use of “Work of Breathing” connotes hard science; the concept of work is pure physics. But as I have shown, the way it is increasingly used in diving is not pure physics at all. So its use is misleading in the eyes of a purist, and undoubtedly confusing to a young engineer or physicist.

But to a diver, does it matter? Does it somehow make sense? Do divers care about parsimony?

Well, I have yet to find anyone who does not intuitively understand the notion of the work involved in breathing. If they have asthma, or have tried breathing through a too long snorkel, they sense the work of breathing. So I imagine that the inexactitude of J/L is of no import to divers.

However, I also believe that the over-complication of an arguably simple concept should be just as unappealing to designers of underwater breathing apparatus as it was to William of Occam or, for that matter, the designer of the Cosmos.