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Technique set to make incident investigation safer

24 November 2009

The Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) has come up with a technique for the investigation of major fires and chemical releases which could dramatically improve safety, increase speed of response and decrease cost.

Technique set to make incident investigation safer
Technique set to make incident investigation safer

Following tests at its Buxton headquarters, the Laboratory has developed and validated an innovative high altitude air-sampling technique, using an unmanned microdrone. If adopted, this alternative could be of direct benefit to members of the emergency services, government agencies and even the military.

The microdrone, which is available from Stoke-based MW Power Systems was originally designed as a low-cost means of taking aerial photographs. Following extensive testing, the prototype – which resembles a miniature helicopter - has been fitted with bespoke sampling equipment. This equipment allows it to test the concentration and dispersal of air particles while flying through a smoke plume or over a major chemical incident.

Duncan Rimmer, head of HSL's Analytical Sciences unit which pioneered the technology, said the equipment would improve HSL's sampling and monitoring capability. He said: "This could significantly improve incident response times, while also being more cost-effective than other air sampling methods. From the Laboratory's point of view, it will allow us to safely collect samples from difficult to reach areas. By combining sampling data alongside the drone's imaging capability, it will help to recreate a virtual 'scene' back in the lab.

"The future uses of the microdrone are almost limitless, but it would certainly be a useful tool for any large-scale or dangerous investigation, helping to further mitigate risk and even save lives. We are all delighted that the work undertaken here at HSL will now benefit others in the field of incident investigation."

HSL has now signed a deal, licensing the technology to MW Power for sale commercially, with the Laboratory providing bespoke training or consultancy services for customers. Early adopter enquiries have already been received from police and fire services, the Environment Agency and other government departments.

Eddie Andrews, managing director of MW Power, added: "The microdrone is itself an innovation of which we are very proud but we always welcome improvements. The addition of a bespoke air sampling kit, and the validation of that technique by HSL experts, has opened a whole new market for the application of the microdrone. We hope this partnership will bring further benefits to our customers in the future."

Traditionally, samples have been collected using light or even military aircraft. However, considerations for pilot safety and the high costs involved have sometimes limited their scope and use. The current unmanned microdrone pioneered here has a range of 500m and can fly up to height of 400ft, enabling scientists to collect samples from previously difficult to access locations such as dense smoke plumes and areas of intense toxicity.

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