A Unique Type of Fire Escape
Burning Ambitions:A Russian-Designed System for Surviving Fires in Tall Buildings
June 25, 2005
THE Paris air show is a notoriously chaotic affair. This year's, which finished on June 19th, was no different from usual. But in a quiet corner of the show, a new way of clocking up air miles was to be found. It looks like a small, orange, inflatable swimming pool with a pointy underside. And strapped inside it is a Biggles-like doll complete with goggles, moustache and flying scarf. It is an escape-pod for people trapped in tall, burning buildings. And it is the product of the Lavochkin Association, an aerospace firm based in Khimki, near Moscow.
There is, at the moment, no convenient way to leave a tall building if the emergency staircases are on fire and the fire brigade has not arrived or its ladders will not reach. Nor are conventional parachutes an answer. As is well known to participants in the sport of Base Jumping (a mind-bogglingly dangerous activity that involves parachuting from static objects), parachutes have problems when launched from tall buildings. For a start, they may not have time to open properly. Even if they do, they can get snagged on the way down. And on top of that, if a building is burning they are liable to catch fire. Hence the Lavochkin escape pod—or "rescue system", as the firm prefers to call it.
According to Yuri Boulanov, one of Lavochkin's representatives at the air show, the idea is to create a cheap, inflatable structure that can be compressed into a backpack, like a parachute. The pod is designed with an inflatable tube around its edges, which should cause it to bounce off the walls of a building. And the final version will be made from some, as yet unspecified, fire-retardant material. As a bonus, and unlike a parachute, it will operate safely from altitudes of five metres and above—which would make it suitable even for the top floors of houses.
In an emergency, someone wishing to leave in a hurry would strap on the backpack and jump, pulling a ring as he did so. The pod would inflate, surround him instantly and bear him gently to the ground. At least, that is what happens to the digital simulation in the company's promotional video.
The pod on display at Lavochkin's stand was actually a one-metre diameter prototype. The full-scale device, currently undergoing tests with a sensor-loaded dummy as its passenger—is six metres across and should be able to carry someone weighing up to 120kg. Mr Boulanov says the commercial version should cost around $1,000.
If it all sounds unlikely, it is worth remembering that it is now possible to lob a spacecraft all the way to Mars and have it land safely using an inflatable shell similar to Lavochkin's. Now all that is needed is some way of getting through the sealed windows with which most tall building are glazed.