Following a successful series of trials, QinetiQ is now working alongside key government partners to deliver a robot based service that is being used to help fight fires and support other major incidents – particularly if acetylene gas cylinders are involved which can become highly unstable – thereby protecting fire fighters plus helping minimise disruption to travellers by reducing resulting delays on major transport systems in and around London.
This initiative is funded jointly by Network Rail, the Highways Agency and Transport for London, in collaboration with the London Fire Brigade. The two year contract currently covers incidents within Greater London and surrounding counties but national coverage is possible with additional funding and extended call out times.
If acetylene gas cylinders are thought to be involved in a fire, the London Fire Brigade and others can request QinetiQ attend and deploy a range of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) with all-terrain capabilities. These can then enter environments that could be potentially unsafe for fire fighters. Their cameras can identify whether any acetylene cylinders are present and, using thermal imaging, can gauge whether the cylinders are sufficiently cool for the Brigade to safely approach and remove them. The ROVs can also be used to gain access to premises and vehicles, target cooling onto cylinders, move debris and other items, or assess other potential risks.
Standard Fire & Rescue Service procedure is to impose an initial hazard zone of 200m for up to 24 hours if acetylene gas cylinders are present and have been involved in fire – which causes enormous disruption to transportation routes and local communities who have to be evacuated. This is because the risk of explosion following heating can remain long after the fire is extinguished and even after extensive cooling has been applied. Recent experiences during the operational trials have shown that when QinetiQ's robots are used at incidents, hazard zone restrictions can, on some occasions be reduced in as little as two hours from the time that they are in attendance.
"When fires break out near the railway they are often in circumstances where there is a suspicion that acetylene gas cylinders may be involved,” explained Simon Christoforato, Manager of Robotic Systems for QinetiQ's business group. “In recent years there have been an increasing number of rail line-side fires and acetylene incidents across London, each causing massive disruption to passengers. During the 2008 trials QinetiQ responded to a total of 17 incidents and helped reduce the average period for the hazard zone to be in place from over 19 hours to less than three and has so far responded to more than 10 incidents under this contract in 2009.”