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Robot to the rescue

Cumbrian engineering firm Forth took barely a week to create a robot capable of disinfecting large areas, lending its cutting-edge expertise to the fight against coronavirus.

Last updated: 04 Dec 2020 5 min read

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Inspired by a Chinese innovation, Forth Engineering’s robot uses powerful vapour cannon to disinfect vehicles and buildings.

Forth Engineering’s robots can swim through rivers, dive to the bottom of the ocean and climb up stairs. They can patch oil pipelines on the seabed or enter the most contaminated part of a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant.

“We may not have the scale and resources of our bigger rivals,” says the company’s MD and founder, Mark Telford (pictured below). “But we have the agility to do things differently and move like a speedboat rather than an oil tanker, which puts us ahead of the game.”

So when Telford heard about Chinese authorities disinfecting shopping malls with a robot, he knew he had the resources to create something similar in the UK to support the battle against coronavirus.

With 54 employees working from three bases around Cumbria, Forth creates bespoke robotic solutions for use in harsh environments – places where it is lethal or dangerous for a human to go.

“We have an office in China,” explains Telford, “and we’d seen that a robot had been driven through indoor and outdoor shopping centres, doing a touchpoint sanitisation – so on door handles, handrails and shopping trolleys. The operator followed in a utility vehicle, safe behind a seal and glass, while the robot went out in front.”

Tried-and-tested technology

The technology used was not difficult for the team to replicate, says Telford. A prototype could be based on ROVs (remotely operated vehicles) that the company already provides for Sellafield, its biggest client on a list that includes specialists in the nuclear, oil and gas, and agricultural sectors.

Forth’s connection with Sellafield goes back to 1989, when Telford joined the nuclear plant as an apprentice mechanical engineer. He founded Forth 20 years ago, originally as a trade supplier of plant and supplies. Now the family-run SME turns over £4m a year, with Mark’s wife Nicola working as head of quality control, and his nephews Scott and Ben head of procurement and special projects respectively.

The special projects team set themselves the challenge of creating the prototype in seven days. Telford quickly got on to his contacts in China, which was just emerging from its own lockdown, and arranged for 10 vapour cannons to be sent over to the UK.

The ROVs created by Forth are highly customisable, says Telford. Typically, a customer will come to the company with a “problem statement” asking for a vehicle with virtual reality (VR) capabilities, a camera, lights or a 200-metre operating range. For clients in the nuclear sector, it might be fitted with a radiation dosimeter or shielding. The coronavirus-battling prototype had to be capable of hauling around a 150kg vapour cannon, from which it would fire disinfectant in a ‘fog’ up to 10 metres in distance.

“It works like a massive e-cigarette, settling in every part of a designated area,” says Telford. “It’s incredibly powerful.”

From prototype to production

The main challenges during the development process were getting the vehicle to climb up stairs without toppling over (the vapour cannon changed the basic ROV’s centre of gravity) and getting the mix of battery technology just right. These hurdles were quickly overcome, and the resulting vehicle can carry 16 litres of disinfectant, a 4K HD camera and lights, all operated by an 80-metre remote control. In tests it disinfected 68,000 square feet in just 20 minutes. And stairs are no longer a problem – an operator can send it up a block of flats without even leaving their van.

The robot is now in production, with eight already sold and enquiries fielded for many more. As well as helping to sterilise ambulances and large areas in hospitals, the robot could be used to disinfect schools, offices, shops and supermarkets as the UK emerges from its lockdown.

The robot is now in production, with eight already sold and enquiries fielded for many more

It joins a canon of exciting innovations being developed at Forth. These include the FSWBot, a friction stir welding robotic crawler capable of travelling up to 1,000km with the flow of crude oil to fix damage in pipelines; and a LORIS ROV, which can inspect the integrity of mooring chains on the huge floating platforms used by the offshore oil and gas industry.

Like many companies, Forth moved to remote working during the lockdown, but has continued to grow, building new offices at its HQ in Maryport and doubling the size of retail space at its trade counter. Future pioneering products are being developed at the innovation hub the company has created at its Cleator Moor premises.

Cheering the local community

Recently, Forth gave free use of office space at Cleator Moor to a local branch of the Scrub Hub charity, whose volunteers sew scrubs for NHS staff and frontline carers. Forth also supported a fundraising initiative set up by unions at Sellafield to provide PPE for local medical and healthcare teams, drawing on its contacts in China to source 6,000 gowns and 6,000 masks at cost.

And on Thursday nights, Telford and other local business people have given the ‘Clap for Carers’ ritual an exuberant new twist. Their weekly Appreciation Tour involves as many as 175 large vehicles travelling in a colourful cavalcade around the towns and villages of West Cumbria, drivers waving, tooting horns and flashing lights. To date, they have raised over £16,000 for PPE at West Cumberland Hospital.

Recently, Forth gave free use of office space at Cleator Moor to a local branch of the Scrub Hub charity, whose volunteers sew scrubs for NHS staff and frontline carers

“So far it has been restricted to vehicles used by key workers in the coronavirus response,” says Telford. “Social distancing has been respected. We’ve had an amazing response. I’ve led the parade a couple of times and it’s unbelievable when you see thousands of people on their doorsteps, all clapping and cheering.

“It started out to raise money, but just as importantly it’s also raised people’s spirits,” he says.

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