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.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.