Safety Expert Cites Software Failures as Possible Cause of BP Spill

LOS ALAMITOS, Calif., 18 August, 2010— Software failures may have played an important role in the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, according to an offshore oil-drilling safety expert, who decries that software is often “an afterthought” and is calling for alarm system standardization.
 
Don Shafer, chief safety and technology officer with the Athens Group, an independent software-consulting firm that provides risk-mitigation services to the offshore oil-drilling industry, said software failures on oil rigs include mishandled software alarms, untested software, frozen computer screens, and lack of data recorders for oil rigs.
 
“There’s really nothing on those deepwater rigs that isn’t controlled by or doesn’t have software,” Shafer said in an exclusive interview posted on the IEEE Computer Society’s Computing Now website.
 
Yet, the most important failure may be the lack of standards across the oil-drilling industry. “In the case of the Deepwater Horizon rig we’re talking about, it turned out the alarms had been turned off. Too many were going off.”
 
Shafer’s firm has worked with offshore rigs since the advent of full software automation in 2002. Some rigs have more than 2,700 individual alarms warning of system faults. And while the standard is one alarm per minute, drillers on offshore rigs must contend with up to five per minute, and sometimes juggle more than 100 at once.
 
“There’s no way you could handle a hundred plus. If you could imagine having a large horn in your office right behind your head that goes off every time a window comes up,” Shafer said, adding that drillers sometimes hold down a button to cancel all alarms or get a technician to sever the wires.
BP’s Deepwater Horizon, an ultra-deepwater offshore oil-drilling rig, exploded April 20 off the coast of Louisiana, killing 11 platform workers and injuring 17 others, and causing the biggest offshore oil spill in US history.
 
Shafer notes that although the oil industry’s overall safety record has been excellent until now, there’s clearly a need for better interface standards and software testing for oil rig technology. 
 
The interview stemmed from an article in the September/October issue of IT Professional magazine, by Shafer and Phil LaPlante, professor of software engineering at Pennsylvania State University, entitled “The BP Oil Spill: Could Software be a Culprit?” The full interview and article, as well as other Deepwater Horizon-related technical articles, are available at http://www.computer.org/portal/web/computingnow/bp-spill.
 
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