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Robotics in Firefighting
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Issue 100: Robotics in Firefighting

By Brian Y. Lattimer, Ph.D.

The use of robotic systems in firefighting is being increasingly studied due to firefighters routinely being exposed to dangerous conditions to save lives. A robotic system is a mechanical device that performs a task using sensors to perceive its environment, computer programs to control the robot based on its environment, and a human operator to assist with robot operation. In 2011, 70,090 firefighters in the U.S. alone were injured in the line of duty with 61 deaths.1, 2

There are a variety of robotic systems being developed to support firefighters due to the wide range of fire events including fires involving structures, vehicles, aircrafts, ships, and wildlands. In addition to the wide range of fire scenarios, the functionality included in the robotic system may need to vary to support firefighters in tasks such as sizing up the fire, identifying trapped people, locating the fire, monitoring conditions, controlling fire spread, and suppression. This article provides an overview of robotic systems that have been developed for firefighting as well as some design aspects of these robots.

 

There are two general types of robotic systems that have been developed for firefighting: fixed systems and mobile systems. Fixed systems, such as automated fire monitors, are being used in applications where there is a significant fire hazard and the fire needs to be extinguished rapidly. Some example applications include aircraft landing areas, warehouse storage,3, 4 and tunnels.5 These systems have UV and/or IR sensors to assist with fire localization to target the suppression agents onto the fire. Mobile systems have more advanced features to assist the operator in navigation and perform a wider range of tasks.


Outdoor ground-based mobile robotic systems are predominately vehicles with onboard suppression systems that are remote controlled by an operator. Examples of ground-based mobile robotic systems that have been developed for outdoor firefighting are seen below. These robots travel 2.4 – 20 km/h (1.5 – 12.4 mi/h) using wheels or tracks, weigh 450 – 9300 kg (990 – 20,450 lbs), and have suppression capabilities onboard the robot. The robots are powered by batteries or a diesel engine. Suppression systems mounted onto the robots include water-based fire monitors, foam nozzles, nozzles on articulating arms for more range of motion, and a water fog system. In addition to the remote control operation, these systems use a wireless connection to transmit information from sensors onboard the robot to the operator for assisting in navigation and fire suppression. Sensors on the robots include visual cameras, IR cameras, gas concentration sensors, and rangefinders to assist in avoiding obstacles.



ArchiBot-M Copyrighted ©
DRB Fatec Co. LTD

Thermite T2, Courtesy of Howe and
Howe Technologies


Outdoor robots for fire suppression.

 

Aerial vehicles are also being used in many outdoor firefighting and search-and-rescue operations performed by fire departments. Many fire departments are beginning to use basic quadrotors that are controlled by an operator, but due to their limited payload capacity they typically contain limited sensors, such as a camera and microphone.7 Despite the limited technology onboard, these aerial vehicles are very effective at quickly providing firefighters with an alternative view of the search area to support their efforts. Recently, plane and helicopter drones developed for military operations are being repurposed to support aerial suppression of wildland fires.8 These drones are larger in size (meters in length / wingspan), capable of larger payloads (up to 6,000 lbs), and contain numerous sensor and mapping capabilities to assess and monitor conditions on the ground.9

A wide variety of robotic designs are being pursued for indoor mobile firefighting robots due to the confined, complex, and cluttered environments required for navigation. These include aerial vehicles (primarily quad or hex rotors), track/wheeled ground vehicles, biomimetic type robots (snake-like10 and bug11), and humanoids.12 Robots are being considered both as a fire watch as well as an assistant to firefighters. In these roles, the robots are being designed for detecting fires, sizing up the hazards inside a structure, locating and suppressing fires, and search-and-rescue.

Since structures are designed for humans, humanoid robots are being developed to assist firefighters with performing tasks in emergency operations such as operating valves, opening doors, using stairs, and operating fire hoses. The humanoid robot THOR developed at Virginia Tech shown below maintains perception in harsh environments using sensors with multiple modalities including stereoscopic IR thermal imagers for rangefinding through smoke and fire environment classification, a rotating laser rangefinder (LIDAR) to create a 3D point cloud of obstacle locations in unobscured environments, and stereoscopic RGB cameras to create a color point cloud of obstacles (i.e., obstacle locations over a color image of the scene). This robot was developed in the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) program to assist the United States Navy with inspection and firefighting tasks funded by the Office of Naval Research.

In November of 2014 onboard the ex-USS Shadwell operated by the Naval Research Laboratory, THOR walked on the heat warped decks while holding a water nozzle and worked with a human to suppress a compartment fire using the ship’s water nozzle connected to a hose reel.



Humanoid robot THOR developed at Virginia Tech
for firefighting in SAFFiR program. (photographs by Logan Wallace)


Though the advances in using robots in confined, cluttered indoor environments has been accelerating, the use of robots to navigate through unknown spaces is challenging and still requires some level of human operation. In addition, identifying, localizing, and manipulating objects is a complicated task which still necessitates a human operator and significant computing power, especially for performing tasks on unknown objects.

Future use of robots in firefighting will depend on the robot durability, sufficient sensors for environment monitoring and perception, task capabilities, cost, level of autonomy, and movement speed. Many of the robots being designed for firefighting applications are lacking in some or all of these areas. For firefighters, cost is a significant consideration and is currently restricting the more broad use of robotics in firefighting. However, as these robots become more effective at conducting firefighting tasks while firefighters monitor their performance at safe locations, robots will be used more routinely to support firefighters.

 

Brian Y. Lattimer is an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech

 

References
  1. M. J. Karter and J. L. Molis, 2012, "US Firefighter Injuries-2011,” NFPA, Fire Analysis and Research Division.
  2. R. F. Fahy, P. R. LeBlanc, and J. L. Molis, 2012, "Firefighter Fatalities in the United States-2011,” NFPA, 2012.
  3. Chen, Tao, et al. "An automatic fire searching and suppression system for large spaces." Fire safety journal 39.4 (2004): 297-307.
  4. Yuan, Feiniu. "An integrated fire detection and suppression system based on widely available video surveillance." Machine Vision and Applications 21.6 (2010): 941-948.
  5. De Santis, A., B. Siciliano, and L. Villani. "Fuzzy trajectory planning and redundancy resolution for a fire fighting robot operating in tunnels." Robotics and Automation, 2005. ICRA 2005. Proceedings of the 2005 IEEE International Conference on. IEEE, 2005.
  6. Tan, C., Liew, S. M., Alkahari, M., Ranjit, S. S. S., Said, M. R., Chen, W., Sivarao. (2013). Fire fighting mobile robot: state of the art and recent development. Australian Journal of Basic and Applied Sciences, 7(10), 220-230.
  7. "Drone takes Virginia Fire Department to New Heights,” Dronelife News, May 14, 2015.
  8. Roberts, M.R., "5 Drone Technologies for Firefighting,” Fire Chief Magazine, March 20, 2014.
  9. Wells, J., "Could the Next Firefighter be a Drone?,” CNBC, November 20, 2014.
  10. P. Liljeback, O. Stavdahl, and A. Beitnes, "SnakeFighter-development of a water hydraulic firefighting snake robot," Control, Automation, Robotics and Vision, 2006. ICARCV'06. 9th International Conference on, 2006, pp. 1-6.
  11. J. H. Hong, B.-C. Min, J. M. Taylor, V. Raskin, and E. T. Matson, "NL-based communication with firefighting robots," Systems, Man, and Cybernetics (SMC), 2012 IEEE International Conference on, 2012, pp. 1461-1466.
  12. Kim, J.-H., & Lattimer, B. Y. (2015). "Real-time probabilistic classification of fire and smoke using thermal imagery for intelligent firefighting robot,” Fire Safety Journal, 72, 40-49.

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