Robots could be firefighters in the near future

Combo photo showing different sides of the Firefighting Robot.

Robots that see through smoke in burning buildings and look for victims could make firefighting a safer occupation, possibly within the next five years.

Robots that see through smoke, look for fire victims, sniff out flammable compounds like gasoline and propane gas and create three-dimensional maps of burning buildings could be riding the fire trucks of the near future.

“It’s pretty cool,” said Rusty Sailors, a fire chief who is working with Thomas Bewley, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of California-San Diego, to develop a prototype robot.

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“Before I send my guys in, I will now be able to send the robots in,” said Sailors, battalion chief for special operations at the Intermountain Fire Rescue Department in Ramona, near San Diego, and a fellow at UCSD. “Before I send my guys in, I want to make sure they won’t get killed.”

“Actual deployment in structures, having an actual product that we could sell to fire departments is still five years out,” Bewley said.

Dubbed FFR for firefighting robot by Bewley and engineers at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering, the prototype robot looks more like a Segway than the metal creatures of science-fiction films, but it’s packed with special sensors, cameras and other high-tech devices.

The prototype is about a foot tall and 8 inches wide and rolls on a pair of wheels with a metal leg that lets it climb stairs and right itself if it falls down, Bewley said.

Special cameras mounted on the robot allow it to produce three-dimensional images that show the interior of a burning building and the temperature of items in the structure.

“It builds up a virtual reality, the same kind of thing you explore in a shooter (video) game like World of Warcraft,” Bewley said.

The idea is for several of the robots to be deployed at once into a burning building while firefighters set up their equipment outside.

The firefighters will give the robots general instructions on what to look for but once inside, the robots will be on their own, using artificial intelligence to work as a team exploring the building, Bewley said.

They can send images of what they find outside to the firefighters. “I like to draw an analogy to hunting dogs or a police dog,” Bewley said.

The technology used on the robot is so new that some of it still very experimental, Bewley said.

For example, Bewley said UCSD Professor  Yoav Freund, an expert in artificial intelligence, is working on software to enable the robots to work collaboratively and produce maps in smoky and partially obstructed spaces.

Sailors, the fire chief, who also owns a private cyber security company, LP3, is working on systems that will protect the robots from computer hackers. His volunteer fire department will test the robots.

Researchers at the University of Illinois also are working on the project.

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The goal is to produce robots that will sell at about $2,000 each so fire departments can buy several at a time.

“Fire departments, despite the best intentions, have very limited budgets,” Bewley said.

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