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Smoke on the water: Finally, a better way to fight fire aboard cargo ships


Fire! The word suggests thoughts of emergency, loss of structures and trucks racing to put out the flames. But what if the fire is on a ship in the middle of the sea?, says Dhruthi Pyla of Dublin Jerome High School.

Usually, such a fire is catastrophic. That was the case recently when a fire broke out on a large cargo ship transporting luxury German vehicles to the U.S. The ship founder in the mid-Atlantic for nearly two weeks before sinking.

It may surprise you to know that fire on ships is a common occurrence. Fire is the third largest cause of cargo loss since 2010 and normally brings not only financial costs but often loss of life and major environmental impacts. In 2019, there was a fire on a cargo ship every 60 days.

The current fire-detection systems on cargo ships have been outgrown over the past few decades. According to Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, the container-carrying capacity of cargo ships has increased 1,500% since 1968. And ships continue to grow as the demand for global goods increases.

Part of the problem is that, as cargo ships have grown in size, systems for detecting fires on ships have pretty much stayed the same. This can result in a delay before fire is detected, which means fires can explode into major incidents before the crew is alerted to the situation.

Cargo ships currently use smoke-extraction systems to detect fires. These systems extract air from the cargo hold and monitor for smoke particles using a photoelectric sensor. However, because the air is only exchanged in the cargo hold up to six times an hour, these systems can be slow to detect a fire. A delay in fire detection allows the fire to grow and spread to other containers before an alarm is triggered. That’s why many industry safety leaders have called for a transition in fire-detection tools to systems that use advanced technology to detect fires faster.

Faster, better fire detection

One potential solution is a student-led project called the Sea Smoke Fire Detection System, which uses a series of magnetic sensors to detect smoke and any increase in heat inside a cargo hold. Created by 5736 Techno Botz team of the Glacier Ridge Elementary School, these sensors communicate wirelessly with alarms via a Thread network, which is a state-of-art, low-power, self-healing, mesh-networking technology.

In a Thread network, each sensor sends location specific alarms to a control interface on the ship’s bridge and to crew communication devices. The advantage of Thread is that there is no single point of failure because the network self-heals to maintain reliability and signals any malfunction on the interface. If one node fails, the network will find an alternate path for the data to be transmitted. The Thread network enables faster and reliable notification that a fire is present. Faster notification allows the crew to take immediate action to suppress the fire.

The sensors of the Sea Smoke system have a strong magnetic back, which means the system can easily be configured to any type of cargo hold. Each sensor contains a smoke detector and a “rate of rise” heat detector, so both smoke and a sharp increase in heat within the cargo hold are detected. The low-power sensors have a battery life of four to five years, which aligns with the routine maintenance schedule of most ships. The batteries can easily be changed while a ship is undergoing scheduled maintenance in dry dock.

A solution for larger ships

The smoke-extraction systems on these massive ships cannot quickly detect smoke within their cargo holds. The Sea Smoke system can, detecting fire faster by using sensors that are easily configured to not just any cargo hold, but to existing and new cargo holds. As mentioned, the system also uses a state-of-art, low-power, mesh-networking technology that offers a secure, self-correcting network for alarm signals. The faster detection of fires using the Sea Smoke system gives the crew the ability to quickly identify fire and begin fire-suppression measures.

Dhruthi Pyla

Faster fire detection is a topic of major interest within the global maritime shipping industry, due to the persistent frequency of fires. The ability to fight fires by adapting emerging innovations to existing and new cargo ships has strong appeal to maritime shipping companies.

That’s why Sea Smoke is so vital. The system allows for the faster detection of fires, which leads to faster suppression. The system benefits not only the maritime shipping companies and their customers but also has a positive impact by decreasing injuries and reducing financial losses caused by fire.

The author is Dhruthi Pyla of Dublin Jerome High School.

About the author

Dhruthi Pyla will be a freshman at Dublin Jerome High School in the fall of 2022 and is a five year member of the TechnoBotz, a community based FIRST Lego Robotics Team.

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