Drones, life-size robots boost arsenal to fight fires on board

Apr 22, 2019 by Capt. Jeff Werner

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By Capt. Jeff Werner

There is no emergency aboard a yacht more frightening than a fire. To reduce that fear factor, all crew members are required to devote two full days of STCW Basic Training to fire prevention and fire fighting. The fire safety objectives for a yacht are designed to prevent any instances of fire, and reduce the risk to life and the risk of damage to the yacht by a fire. Once a fire occurs it must be contained, controlled and suppressed at its point of origin. Finally, readily accessible means of escape for guests and crew must be provided.

Fighting a fire requires the proper tools. The Red Ensign Group Yacht Code, which consolidates the Large Yacht Code (LY3) and the Passenger Yacht Code (PYC), details the recommended or mandated fire-fighting equipment. This equipment, formally known as fire appliances, includes fire pumps, fire mains, water service pipes, hydrants, hoses, nozzles and extinguishers. Firefighter outfits with a portable breathing apparatus and two-way radio communication are also outlined. Vessels 500 GT and above must comply with SOLAS (Safety of Life At Sea) Chapter II-2 detection and suppression of fire requirements.

Even with the detailed safety guidelines and regulations to prevent fires aboard yachts, they happen with increasing frequency. Although there are no detailed large yacht statistics per se, it is helpful to study the records of ships and other large vessels for guidance. Lloyd’s Register reports that fires are responsible for almost 15 percent of total losses to the world’s shipping fleets.

What are the new technologies for fighting fires aboard yachts that are yet to be included in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) that guides the USCG? Early detection of fires on board vessels is a key factor in successfully extinguishing a fire. When it comes to fire detection, the SOLAS II-2 requirements are:

“Detectors shall be operated by heat, smoke or other products of combustion, flame or any combination of these factors. Detectors operated by other factors indicative of incipient fires may be considered by the Administration of the flag State provided that they are not less sensitive than such detectors.”

This leaves open the advent of new technologies in fire detection to be used and accepted by flag states in the future. FLIR, the company that manufactures infrared cameras found aboard many yachts for enhancing night vision, also markets a product line of firefighting cameras. These handheld and drone-operated thermal imaging cameras “quickly attain a clear, in-depth, all-angle view of hot spots whether rigorously battling a fire or searching for victims in blinding smoke,” according to FLIR.

The U.S. Navy has taken the lead in research and development adapting new technology with the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). This robot, the size of a human, is designed to walk through a ship, learn its general arrangement, and then detect and fight fires. SAFFiR uses an array of stereo cameras and sensors, both in infrared and ultraviolet, to see through smoke and detect sources of excess heat. The humanoid robot is designed to use a wide variety of fire suppression equipment and can even adjust spray nozzles. Built with a high-temperature-resistant resin, SAFFiR can withstand intense heat longer than a crew member fighting a fire – up to an astounding 930 degrees Fahrenheit.

The ability of large yachts to capitalize on these new methods of fire detection and suppression relies on the trickle-down effect. The recreational and charter yacht industries have benefited from this before with grand prix sailing. The America’s Cup has always been a test bed for new hull designs, sail fabrics and lighter methods of construction. These new developments in match racing regattas have eventually made their way to larger sailing yachts and smaller sailboats. Carbon fiber masts, winged keels and high-strength, lightweight blocks and sheaves were all developed on the highly competitive racing circuit.

The demands of safety at sea would benefit from a consortium of manufacturers, university researchers, insurance companies and willing yacht owners to develop more effective technologies to minimize future fires underway or at the dock.

Capt. Jeff Werner is a 25-year plus veteran of the yachting industry as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, and a certified instructor for the RYA, MCA, USCG and US Sailing. He also owns Diesel Doctor (MyDieselDoctor.com). Comments are welcome below.