Firefighting is dangerous, even under the best of conditions. Throw in potentially difficult terrain, extreme temperatures and potentially hazardous materials being burned, and things can be even more grim. These fires will keep happening though, and so to keep our human firefighters safer, we’re developing robots, or at least various types of remote drones, to be the first line of defense against a blaze. In many ways, these robots face some of the same logistical challenges that humans do, but they they have the key advantage of not risking human lives in the process.
Water cannons on wheels (and treads)
The first challenge for robotic firefighting design is the delivery of water. We have to assume that humans will be relying on hoses to water along with them to a fire, but for robots this can become a bit of a trade-off. Some robots, like the Thermite robot, are built to a more human scale, at the cost of being tethered by a water hose. This robot moves on treads to operate in both urban and forested environments. It has a narrow enough profile to move through a standard door frame in a building where it’s water cannon can begin spraying water or other flame-retardants while being remotely aimed by an operator.
The Turbine Aided Firefighting machine (TAF 20) is a slightly more aggressive version of this concept, trading some of its slim size for more hoses and a turbine-powered water delivery system. As such, it can blast foam nearly 200 feet, and water nearly 300 feet, again with remote operators driving and aiming. It’s intended for structure and brushfires, although it will obviously require access to a lot of water to operate.
If remote locations are a bigger concern, a robot needs to be untethered from water tanks. On the ground, the Fire Ox robot looks more like a six-wheeled combat tank, where much of its bulk is actually onboard water storage. It can be remotely driven, or operate with a bit more autonomy, driving along a preset route set by GPS or tracking a human walking in front of it.
For fires even further afield, the K-Max helicopter is basically a full-sized helicopter with a drop-bucket that’s able to fly a preset route on its own. While a pilot can remotely operate the aircraft, if it loses contact with direct instructions, it will automatically switch over to pre-programmed GPS routes to continue scooping water from lakes or reservoirs, then dumping its payload on a fire. Since it’s a full-sized helicopter, it even retains the option for a human pilot on board if desired.
Staying SAFFiR on a ship
One of the most complex firefighting robot designs is also one of the smallest. The US Navy has been pushing the development of the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot, or SAFFiR, to fight fire on boats at sea. The cramped quarters below a ships deck can be an extremely difficult and dangerous place to fight a fire, but those fires obviously can’t be ignored. Being human-sized, the robot doesn’t carry its own water supply, but it can operate a hose, search smoky conditions with laser rangefinders and infrared cameras, and basically be a highly durable compliment to sailors protecting their ship.
Like any of the autonomous devices above, robots can also stay on the job when human firefighters need to rest or are tied up with other duties. In the case of SAFFiR, the robot’s small stature would allow it to keep an automated eye out for potential risks at all times, possibly stopping serious fires before they get started.
Source: Firefighting robots by Bill Gabbert, Wildfire Today