Nobody is at their best in a fire. Firefighters may be a rare breed in terms of their willingness to venture into a deadly blaze, rather than running away from it. However, no matter how brave firefighters may be, there’s no doubt that a fire represents an incredibly physically tough scenario which severely limits mental and physical capabilities. Could cutting-edge technology be used to lend a helping hand?
“When you’re inside a structured fire, it’s difficult to see because there’s smoke everywhere and your senses are impaired,” Sam Cossman, CEO and co-founder of Qwake Technologies, told Digital Trends. “It’s difficult to think because you’re in such a stressful situation, which can cause cognitive function to decline and lead to bad decision-making. And it’s difficult to communicate. If you’ve ever been in a fire you’ll know that it’s like standing next to a freight train. It’s extremely loud and dynamic.”
To help, Cossman and his colleagues have developed a smart helmet device called C-Thru, a head-up display which fits over one eye within a regular firefighter’s breathing apparatus. This augmented reality feed presents them with a video stream taken from an on-board thermal camera. It then uses some smart artificial intelligence image recognition to show the outlines of objects and people in green; giving the firefighters the ability to see what they’re doing even in the smokiest of rooms. In the process, the team believes that it has created a next-gen first responder tool that harnesses cutting-edge tech to solve a major life-threatening problem.
While firefighters have long carried thermal cameras, these have been handheld devices with small displays that require their users to look away from the scene directly in front of them to be able to use them. That problem would be removed by the use of the hands-free C-Thru device.
“We’re taking complex information from an environment that could potentially be hazardous or life-threatening, and extending your natural abilities with the use of sensors,” Cossman said. “We then display that sensor information with brain-friendly intuitive cues that could help you get the information you need right when you need it. That is the core underlying goal of our platform.”
A background in extreme exploration
Thirty-eight year old adventurer Cossman said that the impetus for his work at Qwake started half a decade ago.
“My background is in extreme exploration,” he said. “For many years, I’ve been guiding scientific expeditions into remote locations. [In 2015,] we were working with the government in Nicaragua to develop an early-warning system that leveraged A.I. to predict volcanic activity.”
“We started to wonder what would happen if we … [provided] all of them with it — and then connected them.”
The project involved Cossman and others descending 1,200 feet into Masaya, an active volcano in Nicaragua. There, they installed sensors that would allow researchers to measure information such as temperature, humidity, pressure, and carbon dioxide in real-time.
“We couldn’t see where we were going inside this gas-filled crater,” he continued. “I was looking for a tool that would help myself and my team to navigate more effectively in that environment.”
Online, Cossman discovered a concept developed by a Turkish industrial designer named Omer Haciomeroglu. “It was touting the promise of similar functionality to [what we’re creating in 2020], but it wasn’t yet real,” Cossman said. “He and I started looking at what it would take to make it real.”
Today, Qwake has a team comprised of various researchers from different backgrounds. There’s a neuroscientist, a computer vision expert, a NASA rocket scientist-turned-career firefighter, and more. Cossman says that it is the “art of cross-disciplinary thinking” that has led to the project developing to its current point. It has also seen it expand its ambitions far beyond the limited use-case Cossman originally planned to use the technology for.
First responder tech
The C-Thru system isn’t just about providing firefighters with hands-free thermal vision. The headsets will also make it easier for firefighters to communicate with one another on the job, transmitting data to one another in a way which is far more advanced than the simple push-to-talk radio communication they previously used.
“We started to wonder what would happen if we didn’t just provide one firefighter with this augmented reality tool, but all of them with it — and then connected them,” Cossman said. “That’s when we started realizing that what we were building wasn’t just a vision assistant for one person but an entire visual communication platform, where people would be able to use a whole new visual language to transmit directional cues between parties.”
Qwake isn’t the only high-tech initiative seeking to help out firefighters. Since 2013, engineers at Italy’s IIT-Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia have been working on a robot called Walk-Man, which is designed to serve as a robot emergency responder which could assist human firefighters. Walk-Man can locate the position of fires, walk toward the blaze, and then activate a fire extinguisher. It can also collect images from its environment and send them back to a human emergency team, who can use the data to analyze the situation and guide the robot. Once both this project and Qwake’s C-Thru tech are ready for prime-time, it’s easy to imagine a combination of both being used to transform the way that fires are fought in the 2020s.
When it comes to C-Thru, Sam Cossman said that he is “not at liberty” to yet share all the details about the project, including its exact release date. Nonetheless, he noted that, “We’re looking at 2021 as general availability for this product.” Provided that it lives up to its potential, this could turn out to be a game-changer for the brave men and women firefighters who put their lives at risk on a regular basis.
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