Fire robots

Published:  21 March, 2016

A futuristic stadium for Zenit St Petersburg FC in Russia scheduled for completion this year will also be the home of an innovative fire suppression system. Has the age of the robotic fire brigade finally arrived? Jose Sanchez de Muniain speaks with Yuri Gorban, director general of the Engineering Centre of Fire Robots Technology (FR) in the city of Petrozavodsk, Karelia, northwest Russia.

For the 68,000-capacity multifunctional Zenit Stadium the fire robots system has been designed to extinguish fires in the spectators’ seating areas and, were a fire to occur, two vandalism-proof fire robots (pictured below) would automatically leap into action, identifying the seat of the fire and directing their jets at a flow rate of 40 l/s each at a pressure of six bar.

Of course the term ‘fire robots’ may be slightly misleading – we are not talking about walking androids or other mobile automatons equipped with fire hoses. They would be impractical for maintaining a continuous flow of water whilst negotiating thousands of fleeing football supporters. Rather, the fire robots in question are more akin to intelligent monitors located at specific locations on a main water line.

At each robot’s ‘head’ is an intelligent fire detector which operates at the visible and infrared range, and which automatically identifies a fire and determines the coordinates of the fire area.

The working ‘body’ of the robot is a fire monitor that can maintain an automatic flow rate of 8-80 l/s either as a single solid flow or at a maximum spray angle of 90º. The robot's working zone covers up to 85m of the surrounding space with its jet radius.

The robot's IP65-rated body contains an in-built system that regulates climate temperature and humidity whilst protecting the electrical equipment from high temperature, short-term exposure to flames as well as mechanical effects.

As futuristic as the technology sounds its history is nevertheless fairly extensive in Russia. Yuri Gorban explains that it dates back 32 years to 1984 when the search was on for a fire protection solution for the unique 22-dome Transfiguration Church on Kizhi Island in Lake Onega, Karelia province.

One of the first open-air museums in Russia, Kizhi contains around 87 exhibits including a number of churches that are built completely out of wood. ‘A project was developed consisting of a sprinkler system for the Transfiguration Church,’ remembers Gorban, ‘However, the management of the Kizhi Museum and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Karelia were totally against the project. They felt that penetrating the domes with sprinklers and kilometers of iron pipes with numerous connections were contrary to the principles laid down in the construction of this wooden church, which was built without a single nail and which does not accept iron.’

The suggested solution came in the form of a prototype fire robot which worked both automatically and which could be remotely controlled using a camera. ‘This became the starting point for the development of a new stream of fire fighting technology. It was the start date for work on fire robot technology in our country.’

Fire robots were also used two years later during the Chernobyl disaster to remove radioactive blocks from the roof, which lead to further research funding. With government support a laboratory of fire robots was inaugurated in Petrozavodsk, Karelia, working with the Karelian Fire Service, the Russian Science Institute of Fire Protection in Moscow and the State Fire Institute in Saint-Petersburg.

Today’s fire robots are highly sophisticated pieces of equipment, with activation and management of the fire suppression system via an Ethernet signal from a control panel that is itself activated by a fire alarm panel. The fire protection and equipment control panel also controls the actuation of the pump station and the smoke exhaust system. In non-automatic mode a fire ground commander can operate the robotic fire suppression system using the fire protection panel, a remote control console or even a radio control unit.

It may not be so surprising then, says Gorban, that Russia was the first country in the world to introduce specific standards for the installation of robotic fire suppression systems, GOST R 53326-2009.

The use of fire robots is growing in Russia and although 36 fire robots are destined for the Zenit Stadium, a number of other sports stadiums, concert halls, retail centres and exhibition halls already include them. They are also to be found in many industrial facilities such as the Kurakhovka Power Station in Donetsk, Ukraine (20 fire robots protecting seven energy units) and the Sea Port of Saint-Petersburg (18 fire robots protecting sulphur storage facilities). A high number of robots have already found their way into the aerospace sector, including the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is the world’s largest operational space launch facility; and the Vostochny Cosmodrome in Khabarovsk, which is currently under construction. Last year 16 robots were installed in a large new aviation technical centre for Ural Airlines at Koltsovo International Airport, Yekaterinburg. The 8,256m2, 27m-high facility is large enough to accommodate four Airbus A321 aircraft or two Airbus A321 and one Airbus A330.

To explain why fire robots are increasing in popularity in Russia, Gorban points at their advantages over traditional sprinkler systems: the ability to create a controlled, high-intensity flow of the extinguishing agent at a long distance; fast extinguishing of fire sources at the early stages of a fire; 3D fire suppression within the entire protected area, including vertical surfaces; and automatically discontinued fire suppression upon fire extinction. Cost is also a significant factor, he says: ‘The cost of electronic devices and software decreases significantly faster while the cost of metal and installation works on laying of kilometres of pipes of sprinkler and deluge systems in hard-to-reach places increases.

‘In addition, it is necessary to take into account the indirect costs incidental to different efficiency of installations and, accordingly, to different damages both because of the fire and the after-effects of excessive use of extinguishing substances. In addition, on site the robots are only installed on the main pipeline so an additional distribution pipeline network is not required, as used for sprinkler and deluge systems.’

With these fire robots becoming a new mass product for the automatic fire suppression sector, Yuri Gorban believes they will in the future make the work traditionally carried out by man in extreme conditions both easier and safer: ‘Fire brigades that are reinforced with these iron firefighters will be truly 21st century firefighters,’ concludes Gorban.

The report Protection of launching facilities objects via fire robots was presented at the II International Symposium in Space Flight Safety, Saint Petersburg, 1-3 July 2015. For a copy of the report email the editor on j.sanchez@hgluk.com.

  • Operation Florian

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