By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News
Robots to tackle fire threats
A team of fire-fighting robots has been unveiled by defence contractor QinetiQ at a demonstration in London.
The display showcased a quartet of robots aimed at tackling the particular risk of fires involving cylinders of the industrial gas acetylene.
The robots range from a nimble, stair-climbing reconnaissance unit to a diesel-powered robot with a large claw.
The two-year project is funded by Network Rail, the Highways Agency and Transport for London.
Organised in conjunction with the London Fire Brigade, the project has been on trial since last year, with the team of robots - and their operators - on call for incidents that happen in London and the Southeast.
So far in 2009, the robots have been involved in 10 incidents.
Acetylene gas poses a particular risk to emergency services when a fire is suspected to involve cylinders of the gas.
When subjected to heat, the cylinders' contents can undergo a chemical reaction that creates even more heat. As a result, acetylene cylinders can become a time bomb even after a fire has been extinguished, putting emergency responders and the public in danger.
A fire possibly involving acetylene broke out in Luton on Tuesday
Standard procedure when a fire is suspected to involve acetylene is to cordon off an area of 200m around it for 24 hours.
"In the last five years we've had 471 cylinder incidents in London, 91 of which involved 128 acetylene cylinders," Gary Gunyon, group commander for hazardous materials and environmental protection with the London Fire Brigade, told BBC News.
"We've had tremendous results [with the robots] in London. They used to take more than 24 hours to resolve, now we get them resolved in under three hours.
"Three years ago we were shutting down parts of London for over 24 hours every other week. Now it doesn't even make the news."
The scale of the cordon and the time that once was required is a particular concern for transport infrastructure.
"If we have an incident involving acetylene cylinders on what we call the 'line side', it means that we have to stop trains on that line," Peter Guy, head of operational security for Network Rail, told BBC News.
"You're stopping the travelling public from getting to their destinations, and the rail network from providing that service. Anything to reduce the amount of time that any of our lines are closed can be nothing but good news," he added.
Meet the team
The demonstration has a cylinder trapped inside an empty van, and a number of operators are on hand to send the team into action.
Talon is a small and highly manoeuvrable robot that runs on tracks. It can climb stairs, and the video and thermal imaging cameras on board can be folded up, allowing it to sneak into tight spaces.
It has already proven its worth considerably in Iraq, where it has been used for bomb disposal; typically it is used first in fire scenarios, sent in to assess the situation.
The battle-tested robots can be fitted with a range of sensors
Behind it comes Bison, a slightly larger, more dextrous robot that uses grippers and cutting tools to gain access to, for instance, gas cylinder storage sites.
It is also fitted with a small jet of water to do a simple test on the cylinders. If a water jet directed onto them creates steam, the operators watching through Bison's video and thermal cameras know they are dealing with a hot and potentially dangerous cylinder.
Then, Black Max can take care of the traditional fire-fighting task. It is a squat, four-wheeled, remote-controlled vehicle that carries a fire hose, wheeling in and wetting and cooling any dangerous finds.
Brokk is simply a modified piece of industrial digging equipment, modified to be remotely controlled and fitted with a giant claw that can pick up and move the cylinders.
While the current use of the robot team is for the specific risk posed by gas cylinders, it is clear that the robots could be used in a wide range of applications where fire presents a particular danger.
Simon Christoforato, business manager for robotic systems at Qinetiq told BBC News that a number of sensors for other dangers, such as chemical spills or biological contamination, are commercially available and would be easy to implement on the team of robots.
"At the moment we're only being funded for this project, but (the robots) could be useful anywhere there's a fireman getting into danger," he said.
"I think it is clear that as the utility of these systems is proven, then other applications will come."
Mr Gunyon of the London Fire Brigade agreed, saying that he would like to see more of the robot teams on call in London.
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