Send in the Robots: A Look into the Future of Firefighting

Send in the Robots: A Look into the Future of Firefighting

Drones are just one of several new technologies that are rising to the challenge of more frequent wildfires.

Courtesy of USDA Forest Service

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.”

Eve Glicksman
Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer and editor in Silver Spring, MD. She writes for multiple media outlets and associations on health care, trends, culture, psychology, lifestyle, and travel. To see her work in the Washington Post, WebMD, and U.S. News & World Report, visit eveglicksman.com.
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