The UK has launched a new robot-based firefighting system to reduce train disruptions in case of rail line-side fires, particularly involving acetylene gas cylinders.

In the case of fire, the robots working in and around London’s rail lines will enter the area of the incident. Using cameras the robots will identify if acetylene cylinders are present and judge if they are the cause of the fire and cool enough for the fire brigade to approach.

Rail officials believe the system will help cut traffic disruption in acetylene fire incidents. The current practice of imposing an initial hazard zone of 200m for up to 24 hours causes considerable rail delays.

The system has been built by defence contractor QinetiQ and funded by Network Rail, the Highways Agency and Transport for London in collaboration with the London Fire Brigade.

The system has been on trial for a year and has so far responded to 17 incidents during the 2008 trials and ten incidents in 2009, under the two-year contract with QinetiQ.

Network Rail says the trials have shown that when robots are used, hazard zone restrictions can be decreased to as little as two hours from the time that they are in attendance.

In future, the application of the system might be extended nationally with additional funding and extended call-out times.