Author Archives: Eann Patterson

Letting the grass grow while learning some engineering

Photograph of ATCO 17-inch petrol lawnmower in a gardenLast month was #NoMowMay during which we were encouraged to let the grass grow and allow bees, butterflies and other wildlife to thrive unmolested by your lawnmower.  Our townhouse in the centre of Liverpool does not have enough space for a lawn so I have not mown a lawn since we moved here from the USA nearly a decade ago.  In the USA we followed the convention and maintained our front lawn as manicured green carpet by watering daily, mowing weekly and feeding it monthly during the summer.  An automatic sprinkler system looked after the watering and a lawn service provided monthly doses of chemicals; however, we walked up and down behind the lawnmower each week.  Much to my disappointment, our garden was not really large enough to justify a garden tractor or sit-on mower which has been a dream since I learnt my first self-taught engineering by ‘repairing’ my father’s green ATCO lawnmower when I was about 10 or 12.  I was not allowed lift the bonnet or hood of the family car; and so as the only other piece of mechanical engineering in the garage that has an engine, the lawnmower became the focus of my attention.  I suspect that old lawnmower did not run any better as a result of my ministrations but I certainly understood how an internal combustion engine worked by the time I went to university.  I am an enthusiastic supporter of letting the grass grow, perhaps with a mown pathway so that the lawnmower has to be re-assembled periodically by whichever budding engineer has dismantled your lawnmower.

Source: Joy Lo Dico, How the lawn became a no-mow area, FT Weekend, 29/30 May 2021.

Image: An ATCO 17-inch petrol lawnmower similar to the one mentioned above, from http://www.lawnmowersshop.co.uk/atco-17-inch-self-propelled-petrol-lawnmower-b17.htm

Digital twins that thrive in the real-world

Decorative image

Windows of the Soul II [3D video art installation: http://www.haigallery.com/sonia-falcone/%5D

Digital twins are becoming ubiquitous in many areas of engineering [see ‘Can you trust your digital twin?‘ on November 23rd, 2016].  Although at the same time, the terminology is becoming blurred as digital shadows and digital models are treated as if they are synonymous with digital twins.  A digital model is a digitised replica of physical entity which lacks any automatic data exchange between the entity and its replica.  A digital shadow is the digital representation of a physical object with a one-way flow of information from the object to its representation.  But a digital twin is a functional representation with a live feedback loop to its counterpart in the real-world.  The feedback loop is based on a continuous update to the digital twin about the condition and performance of the physical entity based on data from sensors and on analysis from the digital twin about the performance of the physical entity.  This enables a digital twin to provide a service to many stakeholders.  For example, the users of a digital twin of an aircraft engine could include the manufacturer, the operator, the maintenance providers and the insurers.  These capabilities imply digital twins are themselves becoming products which exist in a digital context that might connect many digital products thus forming an integrated digital environment.  I wrote about integrated digital environments when they were a concept and the primary challenges were technical in nature [see ‘Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering?‘ on January 28th, 2015].  Many of these technical challenges have been resolved and the next set of challenges are economic and commercial ones associated with launching digital twins into global markets that lack adequate understanding, legislation, security, regulation or governance for digital products.  In collaboration with my colleagues at the Virtual Engineering Centre, we have recently published a white paper, entitled ‘Transforming digital twins into digital products that thrive in the real world‘ that reviews these issues and identifies the need to establish digital contexts that embrace the social, economic and technical requirements for the appropriate use of digital twins [see ‘Digital twins could put at risk what it means to be human‘ on November 18th, 2020].

Limited bandwidth

Photograph of hills with walking boots in foregroundMany people take a week’s holiday at this time in the UK because Monday was the Spring Bank Holiday. We went walking in the Clwydian hills which we can see from our house to the south-west across the rivers Mersey and Dee. However, despite the walking on the wild side [see ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on August 26th, 2015], I did not feel particularly creative when I sat down to write this week’s blog post. Together with most of my academic colleagues, I am in the midst of reviewing student dissertations and marking end of year assessments. I have written in the past about the process of marking examinations and the tens of thousands of decisions involved in marking a large pile of scripts [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]. However, the constraints imposed by the pandemic have changed this process for students and examiners because the whole exercise is conducted on-line. I have set an open-book examination in thermodynamics which the students completed online in a specified time period and submitted electronically. Their scripts were checked automatically for plagiarism during the submission process and now I have to mark about 250 scripts online. At the moment, marking online is a slower process than for hardcopy scripts but perhaps that’s a lack of skill and experience on my part. However, it seems to have same impact on my creativity by using up my mental bandwidth and impeding my ability to write an interesting blog post [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]!

Near earth objects make tomorrow a little less than certain

Photograph of earth from spaceA couple of weeks ago, I wrote about unattainable uncertainty [see ‘Uncertainty is unattainable and near-uncertainty unaffordable’ on May 12th, 2021] and you might have thought that some things are certain, such as that tomorrow will follow today.  However, even that’s not certain – it has been estimated that there is a 1 in 300,000 chance in the next one hundred years of an asteroid impact on earth resulting in more than one million fatalities.  It might seem like a very small probability that you will not be around tomorrow due to an asteroid impact; however, as Sir David Spiegelhalter has pointed out, if that probability of fatalities related to an industrial installation, then it would be considered an intolerable risk by UK Health and Safety Executive.  By the way, if you want a more accurate estimate of the probability that an asteroid impact will prevent you seeing tomorrow then NASA provides information about the next Near Earth Object (NEO) to pass within 10 lunar distances (the distance between the moon and the earth which is 384,000 km) at https://cneos.jpl.nasa.gov/.  121 NEOs came within one lunar distance during the last twelve months of which the largest had a diameter of between 88 m and 200m, which is about the size of an Olympic Stadium, and came within 310,000 km; while the closest came within 8000 km, less than a Earth’s diameter which is 12,742 km, and was between 4.8 m and 11 m in diameter or about the size of two double-decker buses.  Spiegelhalter reassures us by telling us that there is no record of anyone, except a cow, being killed by an asteroid whereas tragically the same cannot be said about double decker buses!

Sources:

Reinhardt JC, Chen X, Liu W, Manchev P, Pate-Cornell ME. Asteroid risk assessment: a probabilistic approach. Risk Anal. 36:244–61, 2016.

Spiegelhalter D. Risk and uncertainty communication. Annual Review of Statistics and Its Application. 4:31-60, 2017.