Innovation pays off for Fleet Air Arm

Published on Ms Dallas McMaugh (author), POIS Justin Brown (photographer)

Location(s): HMAS Albatross, NSW

Topic(s): Science, Technology & Innovation, Fleet Air Arm

Able Seaman Mitchell Sama utilises the Positive Air Breathing Apparatus while conducting maintenance on an MRH-90 Taipan Multi Role Helicopter at 808 Squadron, HMAS Albatross. (photo: POIS Justin Brown)
Able Seaman Mitchell Sama utilises the Positive Air Breathing Apparatus while conducting maintenance on an MRH-90 Taipan Multi Role Helicopter at 808 Squadron, HMAS Albatross.

For Leading Seaman Brad Watson and Able Seaman Ben Price, recent advice that ‘portable breathing apparatus rigs are now cleared for release and ready for collection’, represented the realisation of a concept they developed to improve the way Navy does business when using harmful chemicals. Their concept has provided a safer way of conducting maintenance, while helping to reduce operating costs.

LS Watson and AB Price first presented their proposal for a new positive breathing apparatus at the Fleet Air Arm Shark Tank in August 2017,  as part of Fleet Air Arm Innovation Program. The program is designed to encourage Navy aviation personnel to present their innovative concepts for improved capability.

Previously the Fleet Air Arm used a face mask respirator fitted with disposable filters to protect against harmful substances in the workplace. These filters were discarded after a single use and issues were being experienced with the face mask as it provided reduced protection for personnel with facial hair.

Fleet Air Arm compared the cost of an annual supply of disposable filters to the outlay required to purchase 22 of the positive breathing apparatus units. Business Manager Mr Dave Robinson said “Despite the initial outlay for the purchase of the new units, there will be savings over the longer term and increased protection for maintenance staff.” 

After identifying ongoing issues and potential costs, LS Watson and AB Price researched the WHS Act and Australian and New Zealand Standards AS/NZS 1715 to come up with a solution. Their research identified a company which was able to construct a portable unit containing multiple types of filters capable of eliminating harmful vapours and particulates.

“The machine receives pressurised air from any type of air compressor and purifies it to safe, clean breathable air in accordance with WHS standards,” LS Watson said.

“The clean air is made available to a user wearing a hood, allowing successful operation even if the operator has facial hair because of the positive pressure delivered by the unit.

“The use of this positive airflow hood also eliminated the requirement for annual fitment checks.

“The unit can provide air to multiple users at the same time, or one user operating a pneumatic tool.” 

The machine was modified slightly during the trial period to improve storage onboard ships and to make the machine more durable. Small adjustments were made, such as flexible air ports, improved storage bags and recessed gauges.”

AB Price said that initial comments they received about the unit during the trial were very positive. 

AB Mitchell Sama, an Aviation Technician - Avionics at 808 Squadron who trialled the apparatus, said it was a big improvement compared to full face respirators.

“The biggest change is the addition of an oxygen bottle that immediately takes over as a redundancy should you lose air from the lines to the machine.

‘This is reassuring in cases where you are in places or positions that don't permit you to leave quickly. 

“It also allows operators to stay composed and remove themselves from an unfavourable situation in a timely manner.”

The apparatus can be used when priming, painting and sealing, processes which employ chemicals which may be hazardous if inhaled. 

For the two innovators, it has been an interesting journey in the 12 months from Shark Tank, to trial and ultimately acceptance.

AB Price described it as eye opening.

“It was quite an experience learning the processes involved for Defence to obtain products from external companies and incorporate them into our working environment.

“Along the way we presented the unit to other RAN establishments in order to gain insight into how the machine could be used outside of the Fleet Air Arm.

“It has also been great meeting different personnel in numerous roles and gaining an understanding of what their jobs are and how we are working on improving the Fleet Air Arm.”