Firefighting Robots Go Autonomous

The firefighter profession, one of the most popular globally, is expecting an influx of unusual helpers. They range from a toy station wagon to a two-ton Army tank-like vehicle that dispenses 2,500 gallons of water per minute. Some move on rubber tires, some on tracks, and others fly. All are robots. While more than 3,000 Americans die in fires each year, including about 80 firefighters, these cutting-edge technologies are capable of sneaking into blazing structures that are too dangerous for human life. They get into smoke-filled rooms where the air is toxic to human lungs. They are often much faster, more powerful, and more maneuverable than the firefighters with whom they interact.

Both autonomous and remotely controlled devices can save lives.

Currently, most of the machines in use are controlled remotely, but developers are now working to create "intelligent" mobile robots that can make their own decisions. Autonomous or not, no one expects robots to replace humans finally on fire lines. Robots are assistants that can reduce risks for firefighters. With more than 350,000 homes on fire in America every year and climate change contributing to 10,000 wildfires worldwide every day, robots can provide some relief to firefighters who enter burning properties or scramble up steep mountain slopes. The main challenge these machines face is the reluctance of government agencies to invest in creating devices specifically designed to meet these various demands.

Mobile firefighting robots may be affordable

University students assembled one of the most affordable robots developed to date from readily available materials. It is an unassuming machine that looks like a bolide, carrying a water container and a PC the size of a shoebox. It moves without bumping into obstacles, using information from built-in sensors. The robot arm rises just above the chassis and can bend at various points, including the upper "elbow," which bends at angles prohibitive for a human limb. The arm is equipped with an attachment and a temperature-sensitive camera, that measures depth and color. In a recent demonstration, this robot paused in a doorway to assess the geospatial environment and then turned in place to survey the room. The end of the arm swivels to scan surfaces in search of a heat source.

When the robot detects it, it directs the nozzle and sprays water onto the fire area. After extinguishing the fire, the robot pauses in a puddle of water or foam as if making a solemn bow. Most recently, it won the Mohammed bin Zayed 2021 International Robotics Competition. This budget machine is unique because student developers combine hardware components with intelligent software. The students showed that an autonomous firefighting robot can be built for about $40,000 to $50,000 - even $10,000 if cheaper components are used. It is often less than the price of some fire bots currently in use. But this autonomous apparatus has not yet been tested in natural fire conditions. Its big problem is its mobility. It is possible to program the robot to move around ladders or do backward somersaults. But adapting it to obstacles or uneven terrain is still difficult.

A firefighting robot in service with the LA Fire Department

Robotics Systems 3 (RS3), a human-controlled robot, is currently being used by the Los Angeles Fire Department. It has already solved some real-world mobility problems and has shown effectiveness by dragging hoses up steep climbs and even pulling hoses out of the mud. The RS3, made in America, costs $300,000 and is funded by the fire department's foundation. It weighs 3,500 pounds, with a massive yellow plow nose, tank-like treads, and a nozzle that ejects water at a higher rate than a typical fire hose. The RS3 is less vulnerable than its firefighter counterparts, but it still requires a human to operate it. From a safe distance of 900 feet, the operator can watch the video and get temperature information from 4 cameras monitoring the robot's surroundings. A nozzle-mounted camera shows where the water flow is pointing. Another camera uses thermal imaging to help the operator locate possible victims. Unlike the autonomous student robot, the people who control RS3 and other controlled robots process the information they receive and make decisions based on the raw data. It makes the RS3 and other human-controlled robots different from the student-designed project. It cannot wholly replace firefighters. On the contrary, it is a tool that allows humans to choose an effective strategy without putting their lives at risk.

Using drones in firefighting

Faced with a steady increase in the number of wildfires in the American West, the U.S. Forest Service began using remote-controlled firefighting technology in the early 2000s. The program started in 2018, with four helicopter crashes involving firefighters since 2010. It was time to implement new technology to save lives. Within a few years of launching drones to collect fire information, the department added "dragon balls" to its arsenal. The remotely piloted aircraft eject balls the size of ping-pong ones filled with two substances: potassium permanganate and glycol. They penetrate the ground, where a chemical reaction occurs, during which small and purposeful fires are started. Their use is to return fire to its natural role in nature, where it helps keep forest fuels at their most optimal level. Since the program began, the Forest Service has used dragon eggs to start about 200,000 acres of intentional fires. This past summer, the Service used this strategy to fight natural fires. One night, drones flew over a specially selected area of California's nearly million-acre Dixie Fire. They dropped incendiary spheres on a mountain slope just ahead of the oncoming blaze to trigger what is known as a counter-fire. The igniters gradually descended the hill, consuming the combustible mixture and creating an area that prevented the fire from spreading. Once the flames approached within 30 feet of the city, the ground firefighters could extinguish them safely, protecting homes.

This highly specialized operation is limited by Federal Aviation Administration regulations that require the operator to be within a 2-mile radius of the remotely piloted aircraft. By law, some drones must maintain visibility from the operator to the flying device. Using drones with autonomous control will increase range and provide even more excellent protection for firefighters. As the increase in wildfires has challenged conventional ways of fighting fires in recent years, researchers have also begun experimenting with remotely piloted aircraft that drop water and other firefighting tools on the ground. A group of autonomous drones, each capable of carrying a 100-pound payload, will be able to put out a fire in a single attack. These devices can function both day and night, in thick smoke and without the need for a nearby water source.

Mobile firefighting robots from a European developer

As fires continue to take lives and cause property damage, mobile robots are essential to keep firefighters safe and successfully extinguish fires of all sizes. The LeoTronics from the Slovak Republic is developing robots, which can be controlled remotely and have AI for autonomous operation. LeoTronics' TrackReitar FFL fire robot has a fire monitor with up to 4,800 liters per minute, which can fight industrial fires, and thermal cameras with artificial intelligence to ensure fire detection. LeoTronics' fleet of firefighting robots covers all aspects of safety. It can prevent fires on cargo and marine vessels, extinguish fires in fire-prone areas and airports, provide fire safety at extensive facilities such as oil refineries and chemical plants, and secure drilling rigs.