When director James Cameron came up with the idea for the movie The Terminator, he was literally having a fever dream in which he imagined a robot appearing through a wall of flame. What was a terrifying sci-fi nightmare in the early 1980s, however, is no longer unique to the realm of science fiction. Nor is it a nightmare. Here in 2020, if you see a robot advancing on you through a raging fire, there’s a very good chance that it’s not a time-traveling murderbot sent from the future to destroy you before your offspring can save humankind. In fact, it may just be there to help you.
With that in mind, here are five of the most impressive firefighting robots around.
Seeing in smoky rooms
Robots can be sent into dangerous environments to carry out tasks that a human would perform in more normal circumstances. Robots can also perform actions that a human would simply not be able to do so well in that domain.
One great example of this is SmokeBot, a robot developed by researchers at Sweden’s Örebro University. Armed with a combination of gas sensors, radar, laser scanner, and thermal camera, SmokeBot can see in smoky environments that would prove very difficult for humans to do the same. It can use this ability to plot maps of its surroundings and send them to assisting fire services or search-and-rescue teams.
“We target robots operating in low-visibility environments, a scenario where robots could be very helpful, but in which it was not possible to use them prior to SmokeBot,” Achim Lilienthal, project coordinator on SmokeBot, told Digital Trends. “To enable using robots in low-visibility scenarios — with a lot of smoke or dust, for example — we developed novel sensors and perception and cognitive approaches tailored to those sensors.”
Brains and brawn
Question: What’s better than a firefighting robot? Answer: Two firefighting robots. This tag team of blaze-battling bots, developed by Estonian companies Milrem Robotics and InnoVfoam, consists of a tank-like unmanned ground vehicle and a tethered drone that functions as an “eye in the sky” to gain added information about a blaze. It’s a classic brain and brawn combo, with the drone providing the intelligence, and the unmanned ground vehicle capable of transporting all the necessary foam-blasting, fire-dampening hoses and other equipment to the site of a blaze.
“Firefighting is an extremely hazardous profession,” Dennis Liefhebber, sales manager at InnoVfoam, told Digital Trends. “As [with] many other sectors, fire and rescue is struggling to find enough manpower to cover their areas of responsibility. Utilizing robots can help [us] perform the needed tasks with less manpower, less energy, and in a shorter time frame. We say that robots can be used in the most hazardous situations where it is too dangerous for firefighters to enter.”
Speaking of antifire drone solutions, this one from Drone Amplified offers an interesting twist on the idea of firefighting tech — even if it initially appears to have read the brief very, very poorly. Instead of dumping foam or water on fire hot spots, the Drone Amplified drone instead drops “Dragon Eggs” that burst into flames when they land. In other words, it firebombs sites that are susceptible to blazes.
But, as Drone Amplified CEO Carrick Detweiler told Digital Trends, there’s method to the apparent madness. “One of the main ways to contain wildfires is to use backburns to remove the fuels — [such as] dead wood — in advance of the main wildfire,” he said. “This then allows firefighters to contain and put out the wildfire.”
In the past, helicopters have been used to drop these “ignition spheres.” By using a drone, however, it reduces the costs involved by thousands of dollars per day versus a manned helicopter.
Constructed by French tech company Shark Robotics, Colossus is a rugged robot that sports a remote-operated water cannon and high-definition multipurpose camera. Like Milrem Robotics’ creation, mentioned above, Colossus looks a bit like a tank, albeit with the enormous hose in place of a gun turret and a red color in place of the camouflage.
It boasts a welded steel chassis that’s completely waterproof and heat resistant. Colossus was given one of the most high-profile demonstration proving grounds of all time when, in 2019, it was deployed to help put out the blaze after a fire broke out at Paris’ 850-plus-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral.
Humanoid robots can apply, too
So far, none of the robots in this roundup have been humanoid in nature. They instead mostly resemble tanks or drones. That’s not the case for Walk-Man, however. Not to be confused with Sony’s iconic portable cassette player that rocked people’s world in the 1980s, this is a humanoid robot project that’s been an ongoing research initiative at Italy’s Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia since 2013.
The idea of Walk-Man is to develop a robot that’s able to locate the position of a fire, walk to it, and then activate a fire extinguisher. It will also send back imaging data about its environment. The robot could be controlled, Avatar-style, by an operator using a virtual interface and sensor-equipped suit.
“The robot will demonstrate new skills, including powerful manipulation, robust balanced locomotion, and physical sturdiness,” project coordinator Nikolaos Tsagarakis told Digital Trends in 2018 about the latest developments. “To achieve this, the project integrates suitable technologies in compliant robot design, manipulation and locomotion control, perception, and motion planning to develop a humanoid robot capable of walking inside human-oriented infrastructures, manipulating human tools and interfaces, and addressing disaster response in hazardous environments.”
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