AST: A new age for fire protection

What’s in a name? Well, the moniker Alien Systems and Technologies (AST) says a lot about the company’s vision to take protection technology to new frontiers. GERARD PETER spoke to newly appointed CEO GRANT WILKINSON about its most recent innovations and its vision for the future.

AST was established in 1999 to cater to the need for high-quality, cost-effective, and standards-driven fire protection engineering solutions across various sectors, including mining. Today, the company offers complete fire protection solutions from consulting, designing and product supply to installation and maintenance.

AST: A new age for fire protection

The name of the company has interesting beginnings. Wilkinson explains:

“The founders of the company were big Star Trek fans which inspired the term ‘alien’. Meanwhile, ‘systems’ was derived from McDonald’s business operations which are very systems driven. Finally, we are a technology company and are always looking to introduce new innovations into our products and services.”

Wilkinson himself has been with the company since 2003, primarily in the role of sales and marketing director before taking over the reins in 2021. He points out that there is a growing trend in mining companies to install new-generation fire protection systems.

“In the last 12 months or so we’ve done several large-scale fire protection projects for several mining houses. There is continued major investment in fire protection on mines, particularly for substations and conveyor belts.”

When it comes to substations, Wilkinson states that fire protection is being considered in the early design stages. “There are several mining companies that are drawing up their own specifications such as construction parameters, what switchgear, motor control centres and cooling systems are used. Included in this is the fire detection and extinguishing system that must be installed at these substations.”

While AST has a strong footprint in South Africa, it also provides product and services to mining companies in the rest of the SADC region, and further north into central Africa. Most recently, the company helped major diamond mines in Botswana to transition from old air sampling smoke detectors to AST’s new generation Cirrus CCD fire detectors.

These diamond mines had been using early warning air smoke type sampling systems for almost 20 years. The system used laser-based optical detection methods, which are prone to unwanted alarms. For example, if is detects dust, it incorrectly identifies this as smoke. On the other hand, Cirrus CCD fire detector is not a smoke detector but rather a cloud chamber-based fire detector.

“The system detects combustion at the true incipient stage, warning of an impending fire threat. And because it’s a cloud chamber and combustion type detector, it’s not prone to false alarms or unwanted alarms. Due to its superior technology, the company will only have to consider investing in a new detection system in about 20 years,” Wilkinson explains.

Where there’s sparks, there’s fire

When it comes to fire protection, forewarned is forearmed and it is this regard that the Cirrus CCD fire detector holds a distinct advantage over traditional detection systems. As soon as it detects that something has changed in the environment, such as an abnormal rise in the temperature of materials, it signals a pre-alarm warning of an impending fire threat. These pre-alarms are sent out well in advance, sometimes up to a few weeks or months, and gives a company ample time to address the problem before a fire is started.

The Cirrus CCD fire detector has four programmable trigger points that allow users to configure their own fire protection parameters. The first point, the pre-alarm, is signalled via an amber LED light as well as a full colour touch screen display showing text, an audible buzzer, and a signalling relay. The next three comprise Fire One, Fire Two and Fire Three levels depending on the level of the impending threat.

“For example, as a threat escalates, you can use the Fire One level to signal an alarm, signal to initiate the fire dampers on Fire Two and send out a signal to operate the extinguishing system on Fire Three level,” Wilkinson states.

In addition, AST also provides the Cirrus Pro Locator, a portable device that allows a person to diagnose the location of an impending fire. To date, the Pro Locator has been instrumental in preventing impending fires – oftentimes in the least expected areas. A case in point: A customer was getting continuous pre-alarm warnings. The client contacted AST who offered to assist but was declined.

“As time went on, the pre-alarm readings were getting higher, and we insisted that we should investigate the matter. Using the Pro Locator, we were able to identify the problem within an hour. It was discovered that the problem was in fact an air conditioner. The element inside the condenser was badly corroded and it was emitting electric flashes. Thankfully, the element was replaced, and a possible fire was averted.”

Mining operations differ: e.g. conditions at a diamond mine are very different from those at an iron ore operation. As such, the Cirrus CCD can perform optimally in various conditions. In this regard, AST does an initial assessment that considers the size of the area, internal and external conditions, and potential fire threats. From there, a design proposal is done followed by what AST calls a soak test period to evaluate the functionality of the detector in those conditions. If all is well, the Cirrus CCD is programmed and then handed over to the client who is also given training on how to operate the system.

Another feature of the Cirrus CCD is that it can be accessed remotely. “We can allocate an IP address to the detector remote login and review live and historic readings as well as detect if there is a fault with the system – something that we are also able to resolve remotely,” Wilkinson explains.

Innovation doesn’t stop

While AST already has a range of tried and tested products out in the market, Wilkinson states that the company in constantly looking at improving its offering. To that end, it invests heavily in R&D and is continuously rolling out new products and developments.

One such innovation is a universal actuator for use on its Pyroshield extinguishing cylinders. Previously, a pilot cylinder was required to operate the Pyroshield. The universal actuator fits directly onto the Pyroshield cylinder, allowing for quicker installation, operation, and easier maintenance. This gives options for our customers between pilot cylinder actuation versus our new universal actuator method.

AST: A new age for fire protection

In addition, AST will be introducing new fire detection and new protection for movable and immovable assets.

“We are continuously looking to innovate and improve. Constantly looking to tweak and improve our current range while adding new systems ensures that AST stays ahead,” Wilkinson concludes.

Phone: +27(0)11 949 1157

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