Send in the Robots: A Look into the Future of Firefighting
April in Paris stood still. Flames engulfed the beloved Notre Dame Cathedral as the world watched, horrified, in 2019. The worst looked inevitable when firefighters were forced to retreat from the out-of-control fire.
But the Paris Fire Brigade had an ace up their sleeve: Colossus, a firefighting robot. The seemingly indestructible tank-like machine ripped through the blaze with its motorized water cannon. It was able to put out flames in places that would have been deadly for firefighters.
Firefighting is entering a new era, driven by necessity. Conventional methods of managing fires have been no match for the fiercer, more expansive fires being triggered by climate change, urban sprawl, and susceptible wooded areas.
Robots have been a game-changer. Inspired by Paris, the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) was the first in the U.S. to deploy a firefighting robot in 2021, the Thermite Robotics System 3 – RS3, for short.
RS3 is a 3,500-pound turbine on a crawler—the size of a Smart car—with a 36.8 horsepower engine that can go for 20 hours without refueling. It can plow through hazardous terrain, move cars from its path, and pull an 8,000-pound object from a fire.
All that while spurting 2,500 gallons of water per minute with a rear exhaust fan clearing the smoke. At a recent trade show, RS3 was billed as equivalent to 10 firefighters. The Los Angeles Times referred to it as “a droid on steroids.”
Robots such as the Thermite RS3 can plow through hazardous terrain and pull an 8,000-pound object from a fire.
Los Angeles Fire Department
The advantage of the robot is obvious. Operated remotely from a distance, it greatly reduces an emergency responder’s exposure to danger, says Wade White, assistant chief of the LAFD. The robot can be sent into airplane fires, nuclear reactors, hazardous areas with carcinogens (think East Palestine, Ohio), or buildings where a roof collapse is imminent.
Advances for firefighters are taking many other forms as well. Fibers have been developed that make the firefighter’s coat lighter and more protective from carcinogens. New wearable devices track firefighters’ biometrics in real time so commanders can monitor their heat stress and exertion levels. A sensor patch is in development which takes readings every four seconds to detect dangerous gases such as methane and carbon dioxide. A sonic fire extinguisher is being explored that uses low frequency soundwaves to remove oxygen from air molecules without unhealthy chemical compounds.
The demand for this technology is only increasing, especially with the recent rise in wildfires. In 2021, fires were responsible for 3,800 deaths and 14,700 injuries of civilians in this country. Last year, 68,988 wildfires burned down 7.6 million acres. Whether the next generation of firefighting can address these new challenges could depend on special cameras, robots of the aerial variety, AI and smart systems.
Fighting fire with cameras
Another key innovation for firefighters is a thermal imaging camera (TIC) that improves visibility through smoke. “At a fire, you might not see your hand in front of your face,” says White. “Using the TIC screen, you can find the door to get out safely or see a victim in the corner.” Since these cameras were introduced in the 1990s, the price has come down enough (from $10,000 or more to about $700) that every LAFD firefighter on duty has been carrying one since 2019, says White.
TICs are about the size of a cell phone. The camera can sense movement and body heat so it is ideal as a search tool for people trapped in buildings. If a firefighter has not moved in 30 seconds, the motion detector picks that up, too, and broadcasts a distress signal and directional information to others.
To enable firefighters to operate the camera hands-free, the newest TICs can attach inside a helmet. The firefighter sees the images inside their mask.
TICs also can be mounted on drones to get a bird’s-eye, 360 degree view of a disaster or scout for hot spots through the smoke. In addition, the camera can take photos to aid arson investigations or help determine the cause of a fire.
More help From above
Firefighters prefer the term “unmanned aerial systems” (UAS) to drones to differentiate them from military use.
A UAS carrying a camera can provide aerial scene monitoring and topography maps to help fire captains deploy resources more efficiently. At night, floodlights from the drone can illuminate the landscape for firefighters. They can drop off payloads of blankets, parachutes, life preservers or radio devices for stranded people to communicate, too. And like the robot, the UAS reduces risks for ground crews and helicopter pilots by limiting their contact with toxic fumes, hazardous chemicals, and explosive materials.
“The nice thing about drones is that they perform multiple missions at once,” says Sean Triplett, team lead of fire and aviation management, tools and technology at the Forest Service.
Experts predict we’ll see swarms of drones dropping water and fire retardant on burning buildings and forests in the near future.
The UAS is especially helpful during wildfires because it can track fires, get ahead of wind currents and warn firefighters of wind shifts in real time. The U.S. Forest Service also uses long endurance, solar-powered drones that can fly for up to 30 days at a time to detect early signs of wildfire. Wildfires are no longer seasonal in California – they are a year-long threat, notes Thanh Nguyen, fire captain at the Orange County Fire Authority.
In March, Nguyen’s crew deployed a drone to scope out a huge landslide following torrential rains in San Clemente, CA. Emergency responders used photos and videos from the drone to survey the evacuated area, enabling them to stay clear of ground on the hillside that was still sliding.
Improvements in drone batteries are enabling them to fly for longer with heavier payloads. Experts predict we’ll see swarms of drones dropping water and fire retardant on burning buildings and forests in the near future.
AI to the rescue
The biggest peril for a firefighter is often what they don’t see coming. Flashovers are a leading cause of firefighter deaths, for example. They occur when flammable materials in an enclosed area ignite almost instantaneously. Or dangerous backdrafts can happen when a firefighter opens a window or door; the air rushing in can ignite a fire without warning.
The Fire Fighting Technology Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is developing tools and systems to predict these potentially lethal events with computer models and artificial intelligence.
Partnering with other institutions, NIST researchers developed the Flashover Prediction Neural Network (FlashNet) after looking at common house layouts and running sets of scenarios through a machine-learning model. In the lab, FlashNet was able to predict a flashover 30 seconds before it happened with 92.1% success. When ready for release, the technology will be bundled with sensors that are already installed in buildings, says Anthony Putorti, leader of the NIST group.
The NIST team also examined data from hundreds of backdrafts as a basis for a machine-learning model to predict them. In testing chambers the model predicted them correctly 70.8% of the time; accuracy increased to 82.4% when measures of backdrafts were taken in more positions at different heights in the chambers. Developers are working on how to integrate the AI into a small handheld device that can probe the air of a room through cracks around a door or through a created opening, Putorti says. This way, the air can be analyzed with the device to alert firefighters of any significant backdraft risk.
Early wildfire detection technologies based on AI are in the works, too. The Forest Service predicts the acreage burned each year during wildfires will more than triple in the next 80 years. By gathering information on historic fires, weather patterns, and topography, says White, AI can help firefighters manage wildfires before they grow out of control and create effective evacuation plans based on population data and fire patterns.
The future is connectivity
We are in our infancy with “smart firefighting,” says Casey Grant, executive director emeritus of the Fire Protection Research Foundation. Grant foresees a new era of cyber-physical systems for firefighters—a massive integration of wireless networks, advanced sensors, 3D simulations, and cloud services. To enhance teamwork, the system will connect all branches of emergency responders—fire, emergency medical services, law enforcement.
FirstNet (First Responder Network Authority) now provides a nationwide high-speed broadband network with 5G capabilities for first responders through a terrestrial cell network. Battling wildfires, however, the Forest Service needed an alternative because they don’t always have access to a power source. In 2022, they contracted with Aerostar for a high altitude balloon (60,000 feet up) that can extend cell phone power and LTE. “It puts a bubble of connectivity over the fire to hook in the internet,” Triplett explains.
A high altitude balloon, 60,000 feet high, can extend cell phone power and LTE, putting a "bubble" of internet connectivity over fires.
Courtesy of USDA Forest Service
Advances in harvesting, processing and delivering data will improve safety and decision-making for firefighters, Grant sums up. Smart systems may eventually calculate fire flow paths and make recommendations about the best ways to navigate specific fire conditions. NIST’s plan to combine FlashNet with sensors is one example.
The biggest challenge is developing firefighting technology that can work across multiple channels—federal, state, local and tribal systems as well as for fire, police and other emergency services— in any location, says Triplett. “When there’s a wildfire, there are no political boundaries,” he says. “All hands are on deck.”
Scientists redesign bacteria to tackle the antibiotic resistance crisis
In 1945, almost two decades after Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, he warned that as antibiotics use grows, they may lose their efficiency. He was prescient—the first case of penicillin resistance was reported two years later. Back then, not many people paid attention to Fleming’s warning. After all, the “golden era” of the antibiotics age had just began. By the 1950s, three new antibiotics derived from soil bacteria — streptomycin, chloramphenicol, and tetracycline — could cure infectious diseases like tuberculosis, cholera, meningitis and typhoid fever, among others.
Today, these antibiotics and many of their successors developed through the 1980s are gradually losing their effectiveness. The extensive overuse and misuse of antibiotics led to the rise of drug resistance. The livestock sector buys around 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. every year. Farmers feed cows and chickens low doses of antibiotics to prevent infections and fatten up the animals, which eventually causes resistant bacterial strains to evolve. If manure from cattle is used on fields, the soil and vegetables can get contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Another major factor is doctors overprescribing antibiotics to humans, particularly in low-income countries. Between 2000 to 2018, the global rates of human antibiotic consumption shot up by 46 percent.
In recent years, researchers have been exploring a promising avenue: the use of synthetic biology to engineer new bacteria that may work better than antibiotics. The need continues to grow, as a Lancetstudy linked antibiotic resistance to over 1.27 million deaths worldwide in 2019, surpassing HIV/AIDS and malaria. The western sub-Saharan Africa region had the highest death rate (27.3 people per 100,000).
Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
To make it worse, our remedy pipelines are drying up. Out of the 18 biggest pharmaceutical companies, 15 abandoned antibiotic development by 2013. According to the AMR Action Fund, venture capital has remained indifferent towards biotech start-ups developing new antibiotics. In 2019, at least two antibiotic start-ups filed for bankruptcy. As of December 2020, there were 43 new antibiotics in clinical development. But because they are based on previously known molecules, scientists say they are inadequate for treating multidrug-resistant bacteria. Researchers warn that if nothing changes, by 2050, antibiotic resistance could kill 10 million people annually.
The rise of synthetic biology
To circumvent this dire future, scientists have been working on alternative solutions using synthetic biology tools, meaning genetically modifying good bacteria to fight the bad ones.
From the time life evolved on earth around 3.8 billion years ago, bacteria have engaged in biological warfare. They constantly strategize new methods to combat each other by synthesizing toxic proteins that kill competition.
For example, Escherichia coli produces bacteriocins or toxins to kill other strains of E.coli that attempt to colonize the same habitat. Microbes like E.coli (which are not all pathogenic) are also naturally present in the human microbiome. The human microbiome harbors up to 100 trillion symbiotic microbial cells. The majority of them are beneficial organisms residing in the gut at different compositions.
The chemicals that these “good bacteria” produce do not pose any health risks to us, but can be toxic to other bacteria, particularly to human pathogens. For the last three decades, scientists have been manipulating bacteria’s biological warfare tactics to our collective advantage.
In the late 1990s, researchers drew inspiration from electrical and computing engineering principles that involve constructing digital circuits to control devices. In certain ways, every cell in living organisms works like a tiny computer. The cell receives messages in the form of biochemical molecules that cling on to its surface. Those messages get processed within the cells through a series of complex molecular interactions.
Synthetic biologists can harness these living cells’ information processing skills and use them to construct genetic circuits that perform specific instructions—for example, secrete a toxin that kills pathogenic bacteria. “Any synthetic genetic circuit is merely a piece of information that hangs around in the bacteria’s cytoplasm,” explains José Rubén Morones-Ramírez, a professor at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, Mexico. Then the ribosome, which synthesizes proteins in the cell, processes that new information, making the compounds scientists want bacteria to make. “The genetic circuit remains separated from the living cell’s DNA,” Morones-Ramírez explains. When the engineered bacteria replicates, the genetic circuit doesn’t become part of its genome.
Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. cholerae strains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut.
In 2000, Boston-based researchers constructed an E.coli with a genetic switch that toggled between turning genes on and off two. Later, they built some safety checks into their bacteria. “To prevent unintentional or deleterious consequences, in 2009, we built a safety switch in the engineered bacteria’s genetic circuit that gets triggered after it gets exposed to a pathogen," says James Collins, a professor of biological engineering at MIT and faculty member at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute. “After getting rid of the pathogen, the engineered bacteria is designed to switch off and leave the patient's body.”
Overuse and misuse of antibiotics causes resistant strains to evolve
Seek and destroy
As the field of synthetic biology developed, scientists began using engineered bacteria to tackle superbugs. They first focused on Vibrio cholerae, whichin the 19th and 20th century caused cholera pandemics in India, China, the Middle East, Europe, and Americas. Like many other bacteria, V. cholerae communicate with each other via quorum sensing, a process in which the microorganisms release different signaling molecules, to convey messages to its brethren. Highly intelligent by bacterial standards, some multidrug resistant V. choleraestrains can also “collaborate” with other intestinal bacterial species to gain advantage and take hold of the gut. When untreated, cholera has a mortality rate of 25 to 50 percent and outbreaks frequently occur in developing countries, especially during floods and droughts.
Sometimes, however, V. cholerae makes mistakes. In 2008, researchers at Cornell University observed that when quorum sensing V. cholerae accidentally released high concentrations of a signaling molecule called CAI-1, it had a counterproductive effect—the pathogen couldn’t colonize the gut.
So the group, led byJohn March, professor of biological and environmental engineering, developed a novel strategy to combat V. cholerae. They genetically engineered E.coli toeavesdrop on V. cholerae communication networks and equipped it with the ability to release the CAI-1 molecules. That interfered with V. cholerae progress.Two years later, the Cornell team showed that V. cholerae-infected mice treated with engineered E.coli had a 92 percent survival rate.
These findings inspired researchers to sic the good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi onto the drug-resistant ones.
Three years later in 2011, Singapore-based scientists engineered E.coli to detect and destroy Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an oftendrug-resistant pathogen that causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and sepsis. Once the genetically engineered E.coli found its target through its quorum sensing molecules, it then released a peptide, that could eradicate 99 percent of P. aeruginosa cells in a test-tube experiment. The team outlined their work in a Molecular Systems Biology study.
“At the time, we knew that we were entering new, uncharted territory,” says lead author Matthew Chang, an associate professor and synthetic biologist at the National University of Singapore and lead author of the study. “To date, we are still in the process of trying to understand how long these microbes stay in our bodies and how they might continue to evolve.”
More teams followed the same path. In a 2013 study, MIT researchers also genetically engineered E.coli to detect P. aeruginosa via the pathogen’s quorum-sensing molecules. It then destroyed the pathogen by secreting a lab-made toxin.
Probiotics that fight
A year later in 2014, a Nature study found that the abundance of Ruminococcus obeum, a probiotic bacteria naturally occurring in the human microbiome, interrupts and reduces V.cholerae’s colonization— by detecting the pathogen’s quorum sensing molecules. The natural accumulation of R. obeumin Bangladeshi adults helped them recover from cholera despite living in an area with frequent outbreaks.
The findings from 2008 to 2014 inspired Collins and his team to delve into how good bacteria present in foods like yogurt and kimchi can attack drug-resistant bacteria. In 2018, Collins and his team developed the engineered probiotic strategy. They tweaked a commonly found bacteria in yogurt called Lactococcus lactis.
Engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut. --José Rubén Morones-Ramírez.
More scientists followed with more experiments. So far, researchers have engineered various probiotic organisms to fight pathogenic bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (leading cause of skin, tissue, bone, joint and blood infections) and Clostridium perfringens (which causes watery diarrhea) in test-tube and animal experiments. In 2020, Russian scientists engineered a probiotic called Pichia pastoris to produce an enzyme called lysostaphin that eradicated S. aureus in vitro. Another 2020 study from China used an engineered probiotic bacteria Lactobacilli casei as a vaccine to prevent C. perfringens infection in rabbits.
In a study last year, Ramírez’s group at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León, engineered E. coli to detect quorum-sensing molecules from Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, a notorious superbug. The E. coli then releases a bacteriocin that kills MRSA. “An antibiotic is just a molecule that is not intelligent,” says Ramírez. “On the other hand, engineered bacteria can be trained to target pathogens when they are at their most vulnerable metabolic stage in the human gut.”
Collins and Timothy Lu, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, found that engineered E. coli can help treat other conditions—such as phenylketonuria, a rare metabolic disorder, that causes the build-up of an amino acid phenylalanine. Their start-up Synlogic aims to commercialize the technology, and has completed a phase 2 clinical trial.
Circumventing the challenges
The bacteria-engineering technique is not without pitfalls. One major challenge is that beneficial gut bacteria produce their own quorum-sensing molecules that can be similar to those that pathogens secrete. If an engineered bacteria’s biosensor is not specific enough, it will be ineffective.
Another concern is whether engineered bacteria might mutate after entering the gut. “As with any technology, there are risks where bad actors could have the capability to engineer a microbe to act quite nastily,” says Collins of MIT. But Collins and Ramírez both insist that the chances of the engineered bacteria mutating on its own are virtually non-existent. “It is extremely unlikely for the engineered bacteria to mutate,” Ramírez says. “Coaxing a living cell to do anything on command is immensely challenging. Usually, the greater risk is that the engineered bacteria entirely lose its functionality.”
However, the biggest challenge is bringing the curative bacteria to consumers. Pharmaceutical companies aren’t interested in antibiotics or their alternatives because it’s less profitable than developing new medicines for non-infectious diseases. Unlike the more chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer that require long-term medications, infectious diseases are usually treated much quicker. Running clinical trials are expensive and antibiotic-alternatives aren’t lucrative enough.
“Unfortunately, new medications for antibiotic resistant infections have been pushed to the bottom of the field,” says Lu of MIT. “It's not because the technology does not work. This is more of a market issue. Because clinical trials cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the only solution is that governments will need to fund them.” Lu stresses that societies must lobby to change how the modern healthcare industry works. “The whole world needs better treatments for antibiotic resistance.”
Meet Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, the first Director of President Biden's new health agency, ARPA-H
In today’s podcast episode, I talk with Renee Wegrzyn, appointed by President Biden as the first director of a health agency created last year, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, or ARPA-H. It’s inspired by DARPA, the agency that develops innovations for the Defense department and has been credited with hatching world-changing technologies such as ARPANET, which became the internet.
Time will tell if ARPA-H will lead to similar achievements in the realm of health. That’s what President Biden and Congress expect in return for funding ARPA-H at 2.5 billion dollars over three years.
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How will the agency figure out which projects to take on, especially with so many patient advocates for different diseases demanding moonshot funding for rapid progress?
I talked with Dr. Wegrzyn about the opportunities and challenges, what lessons ARPA-H is borrowing from Operation Warp Speed, how she decided on the first ARPA-H project that was announced recently, why a separate agency was needed instead of reforming HHS and the National Institutes of Health to be better at innovation, and how ARPA-H will make progress on disease prevention in addition to treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes, among many other health priorities.
Dr. Wegrzyn’s resume leaves no doubt of her suitability for this role. She was a program manager at DARPA where she focused on applying gene editing and synthetic biology to the goal of improving biosecurity. For her work there, she received the Superior Public Service Medal and, in case that wasn’t enough ARPA experience, she also worked at another ARPA that leads advanced projects in intelligence, called I-ARPA. Before that, she ran technical teams in the private sector working on gene therapies and disease diagnostics, among other areas. She has been a vice president of business development at Gingko Bioworks and headed innovation at Concentric by Gingko. Her training and education includes a PhD and undergraduate degree in applied biology from the Georgia Institute of Technology and she did her postdoc as an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow in Heidelberg, Germany.
Dr. Wegrzyn told me that she’s “in the hot seat.” The pressure is on for ARPA-H especially after the need and potential for health innovation was spot lit by the pandemic and the unprecedented speed of vaccine development. We'll soon find out if ARPA-H can produce gamechangers in health that are equivalent to DARPA’s creation of the internet.
ARPA-H - https://arpa-h.gov/
Dr. Wegrzyn profile - https://arpa-h.gov/people/renee-wegrzyn/
Dr. Wegrzyn Twitter - https://twitter.com/rwegrzyn?lang=en
President Biden Announces Dr. Wegrzyn's appointment - https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statement...
Leaps.org coverage of ARPA-H - https://leaps.org/arpa/
ARPA-H program for joints to heal themselves - https://arpa-h.gov/news/nitro/ -
ARPA-H virtual talent search - https://arpa-h.gov/news/aco-talent-search/
Dr. Renee Wegrzyn was appointed director of ARPA-H last October.
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.