Tech Innovation

Putting out the next Great Fire of London with drones and guns

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

On September 2nd, 350 years ago, the Great Fire of London swept through the English capital consuming 13,200 houses, 87 churches and destroying half the city. The blaze started in Thomas Farriner’s bakehouse near Pudding Lane and raged for five days. Historical accounts say the fire was so fierce that the lead roof of St Paul’s Cathedral melted and flowed down Ludgate Hill.

Remembering the Great Fire

To commemorate the anniversary of the Great Fire, the Museum of London has commissioned a virtual 17th century London built entirely in Minecraft. Dubbed Great Fire 1666, the blocky sim allows players to “uncover the causes of this terrible event, help fight the fire and eventually try your hand at rebuilding London.”

Back in 1666, London’s valiant bellmen fought the Great Fire with leather buckets and hoses, using ‘firehooks’ to pull down buildings lying in the inferno’s path. Today, we have experienced fire brigades, with high pressure hoses and fire fighting foam. But how would we tackle a Great Fire of London tomorrow?

For a start, we’d know about it sooner. The city of London is getting smarter. Many buildings are already fitted with smoke detectors and sprinkler systems as standard. Some now feature temperature sensors and video cameras, their data fed live into cloud computing platforms that could be analysed by fire crews before they arrive on the scene.

Augmented reality firefighting

When those fire crews arrive, they should be able to take advantage of more advanced equipment. Smart firefighting masks, for example, will have thermal imaging built-in. Engineers at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have already created VIZIR, a pair of Vuzix-style glasses that allow firefighters to see thermal images through the smoke.

Augmented reality fire mask EPFL
The VIZIR project uses augmented reality to help firefighters see thermal images. © 2016 EPFL Alain Herzog

Adding other augmented reality features to masks is a natural next step, perhaps giving crews a building map overlay and step-by-step directions to navigate through it.

Of course, it’s safer if firefighters don’t have to go into a burning building at all. This is where the Coldcut Cobra Cutting Extinguisher comes in. The lance-shaped device can blast a high-pressure mixture of water and a cutting agent (e.g. crushed granite) through exterior walls, enabling the “safe combating of fire and fire gases from the outside of the fire location.”

Will drones and robots save the day?

Drone and robot technology could also prove helpful in fighting future fires without risking the lives of firefighters. In the US, hexacopter drones are already being used to set small controlled fires to combat the spread of much larger wildfires. It’s not that much of a stretch to imagine UAVs carrying those clever Elide Fire Extinguisher Balls, able to drop them directly into the heart of the flames.

EMI Controls Trucked Vehicle TAF35
The robotic Trucked Vehicle TAF35 from EMI Controls is mounted with a massive fire-suppressing mist cannon. Image via EMI Controls

In terms of robots, the US Navy is building a Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), a humanoid robot designed to prevent and tackle blazes at sea. More realistically, just take a look at the Trucked Vehicle TAF35 from EMI Controls (above). This remote-controlled robot is mounted with a massive mist cannon that either atomizes water and extinguishing foam to douse a blaze or shoots a drenching water jet.

Dropping water bombs

Should a future Great Fire of London get out of the control, there are bigger, much more dramatic options. The US is currently home to the world’s largest firefighting aircraft. The Global SuperTanker is a modified Boeing 747-400, kitted out with eight huge tanks that can haul 74,200 litres (19,600 gallons) of water, retardant or oil dispersant.

Aerial firefighting
Firefighting aircraft aren’t the only way to combat large-scale blazes. Image copyright: Shutterstock/Slavko Sereda.

Finally, there’s news of Boeing seeking a patent for a firefighting artillery shell. The idea is to load gallons of fire-suppressant material into smart 155mm shells, then fire them at large blazes using a field howitzer. The shells would release their payload over the target using a combination of timers, accelerometers and GPS data.

Three-gallon shells

“Boeing officials estimate that each shell could put about one to six gallons of fire suppressant (depending on its load; less material means more range) on a 100-square-foot area,” explains Defense One. “Steady firing with three-gallon shells could deliver 214,000 gallons of fire suppressant in about six hours — about twice as fast as a helicopter.”

On September 2nd, 350 years ago, the Great Fire of London nearly destroyed the city. By the looks of it, modern technology won’t let that happen again.

Main image copyright: Shutterstock/Everett Historical

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