Fire fighting machines

Published:  09 February, 2012

Remote controlled vehicles have now attended over 50 UK hazardous materials incidents in the last five years, writes QnetiQ Senior Project Engineer and Technical Lead for Project GHOST, Kenneth A Pink.

Project GHOST (Gas cylinder and Hazardous Operations Support Team) is a development of a previous research project to establish the potential to use remote controlled vehicles (RCVs) in support of the UK Emergency Services. It now provides support to reduce the risk to personnel deployed at incidents involving hazardous materials The team has now supported over 50 incidents since it was formed some five years ago

When QinetiQ became a private company in 2001 the team was able to offer their expertise on the design, build and use of RCVs to non military agencies, in this case the UK Fire & Rescue Services.

On the 2nd March 2006 Hampshire Fire and Rescue was the first brigade to take up the offer of the use of RCVs for use during hazardous operations. The first task was to drive a Talon military robot onto a fire ground and search a burnt out workshop. 

Fig 1 Talon Robot undertaking thermal inspection of suspect cylinder

There was much debris on the ground and the area was strewn with rafters that had fallen in from the collapsed mezzanine floor.  This was a true baptism of fire for the first ever “shout” where the robots were deployed onto a real incident. The Talon worked well. It manoeuvred under obstructions and moved others out of the way until it found the cylinders. At this stage the RCV had only colour cameras but it was able to establish that the acetylene cylinders had already ruptured and were no longer a hazard and the incident could be closed.  This incident proved that good quality pictures could be obtained from inside a burnt out building, suitable to show the cylinder condition, whilst allowing fire crews to remain outside the hazard zone.

As described the service started with a standard Talon RCV. However while this is a very capable platform giving an “eyes on” capability it proved too small and light to be able to undertake the heavier fire fighting duties. Once the GHOST team was formally established, capability was upgraded to use a HAZMAT version of the Talon. This carries gas sensors, thermal imagers and can carry radiological monitors. It is also fitted with a manipulator arm so it can collect samples.

The next “working job” saw the GHOST team tasked to attend a burning van on the side of a highway. The road and the adjoining railway had been closed as the van had an overheated acetylene cylinder inside.  The loading ramp at the rear of the van prevented access to the rear doors, therefore the robots had to break their way into the van.

During the work up period prior to this event the GHOST team had upgraded a redundant Bison RCV. This had been designed by the team members almost 20 years beforehand in response to a military urgent operational requirement to remove unexploded ordnance from the city streets during the Bosnia campaign and was now adapted to join the GHOST service.

Fig 2 Bison & Talon RCVs opening and investigating a burning vehicle

The Bison is a very capable 4x4 skid steer wheeled platform. Its top hamper can lift over 100 kg and during trials has proven capable of hauling 200mtrs of fully charged 19 mm diameter fire hose. For fire fighting and cylinder cooling operations the Bison was modified and fitted with a fire fighting branch that is fully adjustable to give spray or jet water patterns all under remote control. The robot was also outfitted with a thermal image camera (TIC) to establish the thermal profile of heated gas cylinders. At this incident, the Bison RCV was used to make safe the burning van on the motorway, for not only does it have water spray capability but it is also fitted with Vimpex hydraulic cutters. These are attached to the end of the robot’s manipulator and a skilled operator has shown it is possible to cut open pad locks, and to open the van’s doors without anyone near the vehicle. On this occasion the rear windows of the van were smashed out by the robot and it then used its cutters to slice through the security grills, with these grills out of the way the robot was reconfigured and a lipstick-sized camera lowered to obtain a view of the cylinders. The video obtained was then used by a specialist from BOC to assess the condition of the cylinder and agree with the fire service incident commander that a manual approach for visual inspection and standard ‘wetting tests’ could be undertaken.

Bison was further enhanced to undertake wetting tests remotely. Currently fire brigade protocols use a “wetting test” to establish the safety of a heated gas cylinder. However for this to be undertaken the firefighter has to be in close proximity to the cylinder. The Bison RCV was outfitted with its own water tank and wetting nozzle. This allows the standard wetting test to be conducted under remote control with the result relayed on camera and recorded (if required).

Fig 3 Bison attending to a fire in container of fireworks

The Bison robot is now regularly deployed onto the fire ground to actively fight fire as well as conduct of ‘wetting’ and other standard test/reconnaissance tasks.

In November 2011 the robot was used to attack the flames from a burning ISO container full of fireworks. The constant explosions emanating from the container initially prevented firefighters getting close enough to deploy a standard ground monitor, and the robot was used to suppress the flames.

While the Bison RCV had managed to break into the container at this incident it became obvious that there would be occasions when the Bison would just be too small to complete all tasks. Therefore QinetiQ purchased a Brokk 90 demolition robot which is used by the nuclear industry to knock down radioactive bunkers. As standard these require 415 v AC power supply. To allow more flexible use, for example by the side of a motorway, the QinetiQ team modified this commercial RCV and installed a Hatz 20hp two cylinder diesel engine to provide hydraulic power to the robot. The Team has also installed seven camera stations and a 700 bar hydraulic intensifier which allows the robot to operate the largest Holmatro hydraulic cutters.

Brokk will not just break the windows it can cut the whole doors off.

Fig 4  Brokk 90 Modified Demolition RCV for aggressive access

The GHOST Brokk 90 is fitted with fire fighting capability and has proven capable of hauling over 200mtrs of fully charged 70 mm diameter fire hose, and positioning the highest pressure jet available from the fire tender without becoming unbalanced.

Fig 5: Brokk 90 acting as a self deploying ground monitor

The Brokk 90 has turned out to be an extremely powerful RCV. In tests this modified robot was able to lift and carry the largest acetylene cylinder (98kg)

Fig 6 Brokk robot carrying away gas cylinder

(It is noted that traditional protocol dictates that acetylene cylinders should not normally be moved, but using the results of recent research and adopting the new cylinder protocols allows the robots to reposition cylinders away from motorways, railways or critical infrastructure thus minimising the effect the incident has on the pubic.)

It is not just cylinders that may require moving; sometimes it can be a van full of hazardous materials. Tests were conducted to establish if the Brokk 90 RCV was capable of moving a burnt out or disabled van. To replicate the van being involved in a fire, all tyres were deflated as though they had been burnt through and the handbrake was applied. However the Brokk 90 had no difficulty in pushing the van along the road at walking pace. To further test its capability the loaded van was rolled onto its side, replicating a motorway accident. The Brokk 90 was able to haul the van around on its side, and drag it distances sufficient to move it to the motorway hard shoulder. Also, by using its GB50 grab tool, it proved capable of grabbing the side of the van and turning it back onto its wheels, ready to push it off the highway, all without anyone being endangered by any hazardous materials inside the van.

Fig 7 Bison opening the door and Black Max self deploying fire monitor providing the water cooling

A larger robot in the service with the GHOST team is “Black Max”. This robot is effectively a self deploying high volume ground monitor. It has proven capable of hauling over 200mtrs of 70mm fire hose. During a recent incident the robot was driven into a partially collapsed industrial unit where a large fire was burning through scrap material and producing large amounts of toxic fumes. The risk assessment had identified that the poor structural integrity of the building precluded fire fighters entering the complex, so the robot was rigged and entered the building through a hole blasted in the wall by one of the numerous explosions that had already taken place. The robot sprayed water onto the fire. Although the water immediately turned into steam, this did not affect the robot that was able to withstand temperatures of over 100°C and the toxic environment for over three hours.

Fig 8 The Scientists and engineers that make up QinetiQ’s GHOST team

The GHOST team has been mobilised by fire brigades over 50 times during the period of operation. As the team members are also the designers of the military robots their detailed knowledge has enabled them to undertake operations traditionally considered beyond the capabilities for robotic equipment: During one incident the robots were tasked to operate over 100 ft underground in a cave complex which was full of toxic fumes. The RCV operator had to remain on the surface while the RCV undertook a thermal profile of the caverns to establish extent of fire and if any hot spots still existed. The scientists and engineers that make up the GHOST team returned to Farnborough and constructed new antenna arrays that allowed the RCVs to operate underground. This is thought to be the first time in the UK and possibly Europe that remote controlled fire fighting vehicles had been deployed underground with the operator still on the surface.


It became evident early on that the key to operating on real fire grounds was to have excellent radio communications. If the returned pictures were of poor quality it was not possible to determine the state of the cylinders etc. Consequently the GHOST team and QinetiQ invested heavily in COFDM digital communications equipment.

Fig 9, Fully portable Operator Control unit (OCU) refitted with COFDM digital video link. Used in conjunction with Talon RCV

Although this was expensive to implement, the resulting quality of the pictures, especially when working in extremely difficult environments, has proven that the cost was worthwhile. The team now receives high quality pictures from inside concrete blast bunkers, from within cement works and from shipyards. The COFDM link provides both video and two audio and one data link built in. This allows the team to listen to the noise of the robot which is especially useful when the robots are drilling holes or using the grinding disc cutter. The data link allows radiological and gas sensors to export their readings back to the control vehicle. Taking the audio link further our HAZMAT Talon is fitted with two-way voice communications which permits the RCV operator to talk to firefighters or casualties on the fire ground or during USAR operations and listen to their reports.

HAZMAT operations

Every fire incident to which the GHOST team is mobilised is supported by a fire brigade Hazardous Materials and Environmental Protection Officer. As part of the support operation the GHOST team can beam either live pictures or stream real time data from the sensors onboard the RCVs back to brigade control or other scientific agencies / experts to allow others to gain a full situation awareness of the hazard. All video and data is recorded in real time, which allows the fire brigade fire investigation officers to establish the position of items prior to the operation of the robots onto the fire ground.

While the early programme has shown the benefits in the use of RCVs to support fire brigade operations there are further opportunities for “inter-agency operations” where police firearms teams, radiological response teams and ambulance HARTs (Hazardous Area Response Team) could gain benefit from the support of RCVs at hazardous operations.

CBRN operations

While putting an RCV into the hot zone reduces the need for humans to enter the area, the robots themselves will become contaminated. To address this issue QinetiQ commissioned Respirex Ltd to design a fully certificated “body bag” for a robot. This allows the robot to be driven into the bag and fire fighters wearing gas tight suits turn off the robot and zip it into the containment. Once bagged and sealed the bag can be passed through the decontamination process along with the fire fighters. Once the containment bag is clean the robot can be transported safely to a facility to where full deep decontamination takes place.

Fig 10, Cylinder valve key attached to the robot to enable it to close down a flaming acetylene cylinder

Fig 11 Respirex sealed transit bag for contaminated robot after CB operations

QinetiQ would like to thank the various brigades and government agencies that have supported this research work and allowed us to work with them on the fire ground during real operations.

About QinetiQ

Prior to becoming a private company QinetiQ was the research arm of the UK Ministry of Defence and has been at the forefront of developing remotely controlled vehicles for bomb and mine disposal since their inception in the 1970s. QinetiQ played a leading part in the development of the world famous “Wheelbarrow” range of RCVs, and now markets the Talon & Dragon Runner vehicles that are in daily use dealing with roadside improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan.

  • Operation Florian

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