Taking a Survey of Firefighting Robotics

Jason Lomberg, North American Editor, PSD



The California wildfires didn’t just reignite the climate change debate – it also spotlighted the use of robotics in firefighting…and how far we have to go.

Police and military units have deployed bomb disposal robots for almost half a century – U.S. EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) has used iRobot’s PackBots for IED detection since the early 2000s, while the British Army’s Bomb Disposal Teams utilized an electrically-powered wheelbarrow (the Wheelbarrow Mark 1) to tow suspect devices all the way back in 1972.

But firefighting robotics is still in its (relative) infancy, mainly because of the unique environmental challenges.

The U.S. Navy’s SAFFiR – Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot – put out its first blaze in 2015. SAFFiR, which stands at 178 centimetres tall and weighs 63 kilograms, is a humanoid robot developed by roboticists at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Virginia Tech, with the intent of having one stationed aboard every Navy vessel in the future.

SaFFir uses laser sensors to help navigate around obstacles and thermal cameras to seek out fires, and while it’s designed to operate autonomously, it currently relies on humans for most of its instructions. A more advanced version of SaFFir is the Tactical Hazardous Operations Robot (THOR, because of course it spells that out), and that system is able to traverse unstable floors – like the sort aboard a Naval vessel – and it uses stereoscopic thermal imaging and LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors for navigation.

For a firefighting robot, THOR has an ironic weakness – fire. THOR is slow, clunky, and vulnerable to fire and water damage, but like every slightly creepy-looking humanoid robot, it’s becoming more advanced (and unsettling) by the day. Picture Atlas from Boston Dynamics – in all its nightmare-inducing glory – but with the ability to put out fires.

The Thermite Robot and Fire Ox are designed more for direct action – the former uses a hose to pump 500 gallons of water per minute and can be controlled from a quarter mile away, while the latter actually carries its own water tank, is semi-autonomous, and can be operated from a staggering 200 miles away!

One of the Los Angeles Fire Department’s newest toys is the Robotics Systems 3, a bot the size of a smart car with the ability to pump 2,500 gallons of water or foam per minute (handily beating a fire engine’s 1,500 gallons per minute), ascend a 70-degree slope, and its 5,000-pound winch can tow up to 1,750 pounds.

LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas has been thrilled with the results. “I can afford to lose one of these wonderful machines, I cannot afford to lose a firefighter,” Terrazas said

Meanwhile, Karen Panetta, an IEEE fellow and dean of Graduate Education at Tufts University’s School of Engineering, gave a recent interview where she described her school’s work to employ AI for object recognition and use IoT sensors and AI to help first responders “see” through blazes.

Panetta’s work is still in the early stages, and the prototype, again in a stroke of irony, can’t handle fire, but once perfected, it should give firefighters unprecedented situational awareness, including and especially for wildfires.

As with military robots, the aim of firefighting robotics is to reduce the danger to humans, a noble goal if there ever was one.