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Firefighting robots and drones on the rise

Posted on 26th February 2016 at 10:57am

Developments in firefighting and fire prevention robot technology, not to mention the use of drones in fire situations, has been gathering even greater momentum in recent years, writes our R&D Blogging team.

In most serious fires, it is most often the firefighters who are at risk. While fire crews have significant protective gear, they must often venture directly into the blaze in order to extinguish the flames and to save lives. In 2014, there were a total of 92 onsite fatalities recorded by the US Fire Administration, while 2015 saw a total of 87 fatalities.

While it is evident that we must continue to strive to improve the efficiency of fire prevention measures, in terms of improving personnel safety, robots and drones may prove an important solution to the increasing problem of firefighter fatalities.

By performing a vast array of functions, robots can take on some of the more dangerous responsibilities while the firefighters fight the blaze from a safer distance. Many different robots and drones are currently being developed in order to reduce the threats.

One such example is the Aircore Turbine Aided Firefighting Machine (TAF 20) – pictured right and below – demonstrated by Magirus at Interschutz 2015 in Germany and which has recently gone into service in New South Wales, Australia.

The TAF 20 features an extinguishing turbine mounted on a compact crawler vehicle. The turbine is fitted with a nozzle ring that atomizes water and extinguishing foam to form fine particulate matter, distributed by a propeller. The spray action is variable, ranging from a mist that spreads over a wide area, to a water jet with a wide projection range. Thanks to the integrated lifting function and the adjustable angle of incline, the extinguishing agent can be distributed over a wide area, and changes in wind direction can be compensated for.

In addition, TAF 20 can be remotely controlled from a distance up to 500 metres, keeping firefighters at bay while the machine itself takes the plunge into the more dangerous regions of a serious fire.

The vehicle also features a fan to clear smoke and a bulldozer blade that can move aside large obstacles, such as cars and pieces of rubble from the site, making navigation through dangerous zones safer and easier. Indeed, TAF 20’s multifaceted operations may prove to be immensely useful in both protecting the firefighters and stopping the fire itself.

Similar in many ways to TAF 20 is Thermite 3.0 (pictured below), a robot developed by Howe & Howe Technologies in Maine, USA. Thermite 3.0 is much smaller, supposedly able to fit into an elevator. The compact robot’s monitor nozzle operates at 600 to 1,000 gpm, a force that would otherwise require around six to eight firefighters to control.

This machine can be controlled up to a quarter of a mile away, keeping the firefighters that control it at a relatively safe distance from the scene at hand. Not to mention, it is easily able to traverse multiple forms of terrain, which can serve as a testament to this robot’s versatility.

Though fires on dry land are dangerous enough, the possibility of a fire on board a vessel poses an even greater risk to all passengers and crew, as there is limited access to proper firefighting equipment and personnel. The US Navy is working with researchers from Virginia Tech to develop the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR). Standing at five feet and ten inches tall, SAFFiR is a humanoid robot designed to both prevent fires from occurring on board of a ship and tackle them should they break out, in an environment where resources for fire prevention and safety are limited. Its ability to sense dangerous gases, open doors and handle fire hoses, and navigate through them, will be invaluable when assisting Navy firefighters on any ship.

Work is underway to develop omnidirectional walking capabilities for the robot, pictured below, so that it can balance in in sea state conditions and traverse obstacles. In addition it can make use of a broad range of fire suppression technologies and will be designed to work with human firefighters, responding to gestures and commands.

Other robots are useful not just for stopping the fire, but also for gathering intelligence. Skyfire’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is a flying drone that offers a technology to provide vital situational awareness during firefighting operations.

The drone arrives at the scene in question within seconds and assesses the urgency of the situation by evaluating the local environment. It can access areas that humans cannot and helps to perform search and rescue operations by locating victims. In addition to providing on-scene intel, it can also be used to identify possible threats in order to prevent them from evolving into something more serious.

The drone’s cameras provide real-time video, while its gas sensors can evaluate possible causes for alarm, much like the US Navy’s SAFFiR.

It is important to note that these machines are not designed to replace firefighters per se. Current technology is far from being completely autonomous, because although some functions of these drones and robots do not require human control, many of them do. Indeed, their intended use is to instead facilitate the firefighters’ jobs and keep them safe from harm. It is, after all, preferable to lose a robot or a drone to an environmental hazard than a human life, no matter how expensive that machine may be. 

Jaffer NaQvi; Kristian Dolan and Ian Portelli

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