From robots to drones to AI – cutting-edge technologies optimise firefighting efforts

  • Robots and drones helped firefighters to extinguish the Notre Dame blaze
  • Newly developed fire-resistant and self-powered sensor could make a big difference for fire departments
  • MHI’s autonomous robots are the perfect solution for hazardous fires
  • Honda’s self-driving vehicle could carry firefighters’ heavy equipment
  • The era of smart firefighting

Always on a mission to save lives and property, firefighters have a job that’s both noble and dangerous. The nature of the job entails exposure to physical injuries and potentially fatal situations, as they’re often the first responders on the scene.

Infographic showing the expected value of the global fire safety equipment market by 2023.
Research and Markets predicts that the global fire safety equipment market will reach $47.4 billion by 2023.

Regardless of being well-trained and armed with safety equipment, firefighters can suffer from severe coughing, asthma, or heart disease due to exposure to high temperatures and smoke. For instance, according to the BBC, along with 343 firefighters who were killed during the 9/11 attacks, 173 died later because of “WTC-related illness”, as many of them were exposed to toxic contaminants, ultimately leading to cancer.

Also, The New York Times reports that out of 700 firefighters who tried to extinguish a forest fire in Sichuan Province, China, 27 have died. The fire broke out in March 2019, and the flames quickly started to burn out of control. A similar disaster happened during California’s 2018 wildfires, when six firefighters firemen were killed in the line of duty. To keep firefighters healthy and safe, fire departments should rely more on technology. And the market is already growing. According to Research and Markets, the value of this industry is expected to reach $47.4 billion by 2023. Clearly, technology could play a vital role in improving the safety and efficiency of firefighters. And some fire departments are already leveraging it.

Robots and drones helped firefighters to extinguish the Notre Dame blaze

The Paris Fire Brigade is one of them. To extinguish the fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris firefighters used a remote-control robot called Colossus. The Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the oldest and most visited landmarks in Paris, caught fire on April 15, 2019. Over 400 firefighters arrived at the scene, along with a small robot. Colossus, developed by the French company Shark Robotics, looks like a smaller version of a tank. This battery-powered robot is waterproof and fireproof. It’s designed to perform several important tasks, such as extinguish fires, transport equipment and wounded people, and collect information. This robot is equipped with a hose and can project water in a range of up to 250 metres.

Colossus is able to move through very dangerous areas to protect human firefighters, which is why the Paris fire department deployed it during the Notre Dame blaze. Thanks to its sensor technology, Colossus collects real-time information and shares it with a remote pilot and other firefighters working on the site. For instance, it can detect if the air is filled with potentially hazardous chemicals. The robot also features an advanced thermometer to identify the temperature inside the building. What makes the robot even more appealing is that it requires minimal maintenance and will last up to 12 hours on a single charge. The Notre Dame fire was fully extinguished after nine hours, with no firefighters killed, and a lot of the credit goes to Shark Robotics’ innovation.

Colossus isn’t the only piece of technology that Paris firefighters used to stop Notre Dame’s fire. Drones developed by the Chinese tech company DJI also helped the firefighters tackle the blaze. Although the fire severely damaged on the building, destroying its spire and the roof, things could have been a lot worse if it weren’t for DJI’s commercial drones. The Paris Fire Brigade used the Mavic Pro and Matrice M210 drones, equipped with high resolution cameras. The drones were used to detect where exactly the flames originated, and track the progression of the fire. Unlike using a helicopter to collect aerial data, relying on drones is more affordable and efficient. “The drones allowed us to correctly use what we had at our disposal,” says Gabriel Plus, Paris Fire Brigade’s spokesman.

Usually, flying a drone over Paris is prohibited, but the restriction was temporarily removed to allow DJI’s drones to hover over Notre Dame and help firefighters make better decisions. As Paris firefighters don’t have their own drones, they had to borrow the tech from the French Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Culture. Since this technology proved highly useful, it’s likely we’ll see more fire departments employing robots and drones in their missions.

Newly developed fire-resistant and self-powered sensor could make a big difference for fire departments

As technology continues to advance, firefighting could become a much safer profession. That’s exactly what researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in partnership with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague, had in mind when developing their latest innovation. As Futurism reveals, the team created a sensor to track people working in dangerous environments, such as firefighters, miners, and steelworkers.

 Infographic showing the key characteristics of a new fire-resistant sensor.
A new motion-powered sensor is made from carbon aerogel nanocomposite and is able to withstand temperatures of up to 300 degrees Celsius.

The sensor is made from carbon aerogel nanocomposite, which makes the device fire-resistant. Other sensors don’t perform very well in high-temperature environments, because most batteries can’t withstand the heat. But this innovation is different. Thanks to its material, the sensor is able to withstand temperatures of up to 300° Celsius. The device can be attached to the sole of a shoe, or placed under the arm of a jacket. As the person moves, the sensor generates electricity from the motion, so it can operate. In case the movement stops, the device will alert others outside the dangerous area to send help. To make the sensor available on a wider market, the team plans to find a partner to commercialise the device. For those working in hostile environments, commercialisation of this tech will make a big difference. “It’s exciting to develop something that could save someone’s life in the future. If firefighters use our technology and we can save someone’s life, that would be great,” explains one of the researchers, Islam Hassan.

MHI’s autonomous robots are the perfect solution for hazardous fires

To help firefighters save more lives, the Japanese engineering company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), developed the Water Cannon Robot and the Hose Extension Robot. Both robots are equipped with GPS and laser sensor technology, allowing them to themselves to a fire. The robots’ performance was demonstrated at Tokyo’s National Research Institute of Fire and Disaster,  on March 22, 2019.

MHI’s autonomous robots are designed for use in highly hazardous fire incidents, such as at petrochemical plants. The goal is to protect human firefighters from any potential danger on the site. While the Water Cannon Robot is designed to extinguish flames in hard-to-reach locations, the Hose Extension Robot will find its way to a water source and provide the Water Cannon robot with up to 300 metres of fire hose. Though it’s made from a rigid and heavy material, the hose is “automatically extended and rewound in coordination with the movement of the robot” and can maneuver around corners. After the hose is connected to a water source, the Cannon can release up to 4,000 litres of water per minute. Though it’s not yet been revealed whether MHI plans to put its system to use anytime in the future, the tech certainly comes with plenty of benefits for firefighters.

Honda’s self-driving vehicle could carry firefighters’ heavy equipment

When it comes to firefighting equipment, it’s important for any fire department to have the right vehicle that will reach the scene as soon as possible. And just like every other piece of equipment, vehicles need an upgrade, too. This inspired the car manufacturer Honda to create a prototype vehicle that can be used in different work environments, including firefighting. Its Autonomous Work Vehicle (AWV) uses GPS, sensors, and AI algorithms to navigate harsh terrain such as forests.

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To prove the vehicle’s usefulness, Honda partnered with a firefighting division in Colorado to test the prototype. Usually, each firefighter carries around 27 kilograms of gear, including safety equipment, axes, and 18 litres of water. Such heavy weight can slow down firefighters and increase fatigue. Honda’s autonomous vehicle is designed to prevent that from happening. Besides carrying equipment, this innovation can be adapted to transport people as well, which is particularly helpful in search and rescue missions. It also has a ‘follow me’ mode. By pressing a button on the vehicle, the AWV will identify and remember a firefighter’s shape and physical appearance and follow them until it’s given other instructions. The vehicle is able to move over rocks and fallen trees without rolling over, which is particularly helpful in search and rescue missions. Although it’s still in the development stage, Honda plans to commercialise it in the future and is already searching for business and technology partners to complete its mission.

The era of smart firefighting

Technology makes firefighters more efficient and ensures their safety when facing some of the world’s deadliest situations. Though most fire departments still lack tech-enhanced equipment, things are about to change. As the number of fire-related incidents increases, fire departments are realising the need to respond efficiently.  Technologies such as drones, robots, and self-driving vehicles could help reduce fatal fire incidents. Thanks to these solutions, firefighters will be able to better protect civilians and their property. Furthermore, wildfires could be stopped on time, before they get out of control and cause damage to our environment and natural resources. Clearly, we’re entering a new era where firefighting is smarter than ever.

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