Leadership

Robotics for Reducing Firefighter Injuries: Now and Potential

Issue 5 and Volume 164.

BY MARIE THOMAS AND PHILIP SCHAENMAN

According to the National Fire Protection Association, in a typical year, about 25 percent of firefighter line-of-duty fatalities are caused by heart attacks, including overexertion; 21 percent die trapped by fire; and 18 percent die from collapses and unrecoverable injuries resulting from fire-damaged floors and obstructions. There are also tens of thousands of strains, sprains, and other injuries every year, many from lifting hoses and carrying heavy objects. Many firefighters get cancer or other ailments from coming into contact with carcinogens or poisonous gases and chemicals. Many avenues for reducing firefighter deaths, injuries, and exposures are being explored. The U.S. fire service, however, has largely overlooked one area that has potential to help achieve these goals. That area is robotic technology, which has become a hotbed of activity in other nations.

(1) Anna Konda (Norway). (Photo courtesy of SINTEF.)

This situation is particularly ironic because of the large volume of robotics research and development (R&D) being funded and undertaken in the United States. The Department of Defense, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), has funded a significant portion of the robotic technology research. The majority of the research is aimed at reducing military casualties and enhancing military capabilities. Some of the same technology that reduces risk for the war fighter can be adapted to reduce risk and enhance capability for the firefighter. The fire service has improved technology for protective equipment, heat sensing [e.g., infrared (IR) cameras], and tracked vehicles for pulling hoselines to operate against hazardous outdoor fires such as those involving fuel tanks. But, as evidenced by recent fire world meeting agendas, fire literature, and federal fire research, attention has not been adequately given to the fire service’s use of the latest robotic technology for the broad array of tasks and dangers firefighters face.

We are in the midst of a revolution in robotics technology. Now is the time for the fire service to take a more active role in evaluating the technology and shaping features that will be of value to firefighters.

Former Congressman Curt Weldon, well known as a fire chief and founder of the Congressional Fire Caucus, has been working to bring internationally available firefighting robots to the U.S. fire service. He has a unique viewpoint resulting from experience in overseeing military research budgets. Weldon believes there is much robotic technology that could be adapted to assist firefighters.1

(2) Big Dog (U.S. Military). (Photo by U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. M.L. Meier.)

The purpose of this article is to give insight into robotic technology already in existence or currently in development that might be useful to the fire service. The hope is to whet appetites for more information and stimulate leadership to take a more active role in setting requirements and working with robotics researchers. The fire services in several other nations are already collaborating with robotics researchers and manufacturers to implement firefighter-assistance robotics. It is time that we catch up.

The term robot is used here to refer to robotic machines that mechanically or otherwise assist humans. Think of technology like firefighter-guided robots designed to detect and handle dangers (like bomb-handling robots do for police) or mechanical mules designed to haul loads or sensors mounted on a mobile unit designed to improve situation awareness and not the autonomous humanoid robots like R2D2 from Star Wars that would replace firefighters.

CURRENT TECHNOLOGY

Some robots are already available for the fire service to use, other robots can be modified, and many more are in the development stage. One tack being taken in the military research is to develop robots that imitate animal capabilities, such as carrying large payloads (300-plus pounds) while maintaining mobility and stability over rough terrain; climbing and crawling rapidly while remaining agile; and locating and alerting to the presence of people. Other military research has developed robots that can remove obstructions, break doors, and investigate hazardous conditions. Most of these robots can be controlled remotely from hundreds of meters away and can transmit video and navigational data to the user to assist with monitoring dangers ahead. The robots are potentially capable of assisting firefighters with carrying equipment, clearing areas, removing obstructions, ventilating rooms, locating victims, and extinguishing fires—abilities with the potential to save lives and prevent injury to firefighters and to civilians.

Assisting Urban Firefighters

Examples of robots with the capability to aid urban firefighters with a wide variety of tasks are shown in Table I. Each robotic technology is compared to existing methods used for a firefighting task. Robots have the potential to assist urban firefighters with searching and finding victims within a structure, using water to extinguish flames, removing debris and knocking down obstacles, and removing people from hazardous situations. Most of the robots are prototypes and are still in the R&D phase. We cannot know for sure if any particular technology will be useable in the long run, but collectively they demonstrate the potential the technology has to offer. Each prototype is expected to improve with subsequent generations.

There are several examples of robotic technology already used internationally to assist the fire service. For example, a South Korean robot called Firefighters Assistance Robot, which weighs less than five pounds, can enter a fire scene; provide data on temperature, smoke conditions, and gas levels from 50 yards away; and transmit images. The data provide firefighters with information on the fire situation before they enter a burning building. The robot not only can withstand temperatures up to 320°F but also can be easily carried into a building. Firefighters can deploy the robot to search for trapped victims and locate safe escape routes. As of October 2009, 50 fire stations in South Korea have received 100 units to test.

In Norway, a three-meter-long experimental robotic fire hose named Anna Konda uses hydraulic motors to slither like a snake up stairs, following alongside firefighters to the fire source and spraying water from its front end (“mouth”) at a pressure of 1,450 pounds per square inch (psi). The robot also can be remote-controlled to go to a designated location. Subsequent generations will likely increase its water capacity, which is currently too low for most fire tasks, but it is a fascinating display of potential.

In Austria, scientists developed a wireless-controlled robot named LUF60 that uses a high-capacity positive-pressure ventilator and “water-beam fog” to clear a path through smoke, heat, and toxic gases. It can be controlled from up to 1,000 feet away. A barrel-like container mounted on top of LUF60 carries Class A and Class B foam. It allows firefighters to clear a path to the seat of the fire and rescue victims safely.

Many situations require firefighters to carry heavy equipment such as fire hoses, entry tools, and extinguishers into buildings and up staircases. A mule-like robot named Big Dog was developed for the U.S. military to carry up to 350 pounds of gear, climb up hills, and travel over different types of terrain (e.g., a street filled with hoselines). It can walk in snow or on ice. Researchers are currently working to modify it to climb stairs and to increase its carrying capacity. Firefighters could use such a mechanical mule to reduce stress, move faster by transferring their payloads to the mule, and have a wider variety of equipment and tools available than they now can carry.

Wildland and Outdoors Firefighting

Fighting forest fires, like fighting urban fires, is high risk. Wildfires often occur in remote areas, and firefighters often have to travel long distances with heavy equipment. In Israel, researchers developed a construction equipment-based robot (RMP400F) to assist with creating fire breaks by digging large quantities of dirt and removing obstructions and rubble. The next prototype is expected to be capable of applying 10 gallons of water per second using a remote-controlled water cannon. In Germany, scientists have developed a robot named OLE that can go to a GPS-designated location, provide visual and auditory capabilities to identify pockets of fire, and disperse powdered fire extinguishing agents or water at approximately 10 gallons per second. Unstaffed aerial vehicles (UAVs) already are used for long-range detection and surveillance of wildfires. The UAVs can be modified to set backfires; some can hover and fly themselves to the ground. Additional wildfire-related robot technologies are described in Table II.

TOO EXPENSIVE?

Many argue that robots are too expensive to buy, especially in difficult financial times such as these. Some robotic technology may have a high cost up front, but the technology is often cost-effective in the long run. Preventing one career-ending back injury can save hundreds of thousands of dollars. Large-scale use of robotic technology will produce economies of scale that make it more affordable. IR cameras, once considered prohibitively expensive at a cost of $40,000 per camera, are available now for $7,000 or less. When firefighters witnessed how IR cameras helped locate victims and identify hot spots of fires, hundreds of fire departments purchased them. Now, IR cameras are commonplace in fire departments and have become part of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) list of recommended standard equipment.

Robots are disposable; human life is not. Robots can serve to protect the firefighters so that the firefighters can perform their duties with less risk of injury. Robotic technology can do hazardous and strenuous tasks without the need for rest.

The majority of robots are semiautonomous. Most need to be controlled by a user but do not have to be tethered to a power cable. Robotic technology is not yet advanced enough to deal with unexpected events or to make fast judgments. A firefighter is needed to make rapid decisions based on changes that occur during an emergency situation. However, firefighters with more information and physical capability at their disposal can function more safely and efficiently. Robotics will not put firefighters out of a job, but they can change the nature of the job, improve safety, and increase capability.

ACTION NEEDED

The U.S. fire service has an important opportunity to guide the development of robots to support specific firefighting needs. There are robotic technologies in development that can reduce the risks to firefighters. The fire service must be willing to work with engineering teams to develop this technology to assist with firefighting needs.

There are three important steps to push this idea forward. First, the fire service needs to be informed about current robotic technology and its potential applications. Second, the fire service needs to provide insight as to the changes needed to refine and develop robotic capabilities to meet fire department requirements. Third, once the requirements have been understood and acted on by R&D firms, the fire service will need to work with robotic engineers to provide feedback to optimize the technology. The new developments in robotics have the potential to revolutionize the way firefighters combat fires, deal with hazardous materials incidents, and reduce firefighter casualties. The technology development can be sped up if we act now.

Endnote

1. Verbal communication to Philip Schaenman, in discussion of robotics.

References

1. Karter, MJ & Molis, JL. Firefighter Injuries in the United States. National Fire Protection Association, October 2006.

2. DARPA website: http://www.darpa.mil.

3. Hornyak, Tim. (2009, October 7). “Mini robot can cruise through burning buildings,” CRAVE. Retrieved October 5, 2010, from http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-10369604-1.html.

4. Piquepaille, R. (2006, July 22). “Anna Konda: The Robot Firefighter,” CRAVE. Retrieved October 20, 2009, from http://www.zdnet.com/blog/emergingtech/anna-konda-the-robotic-firefighter/299.

5. Bixby, L. (2007, August). “Firefighter Safety Spurs Interest in Robots,” Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment. Retrieved October 19, 2010, from http://www.fireapparatusmagazine.com/index.html.

6. Raibert, M. (2008, April 8) “BigDog, the Rough-Terrain Quadruped.” Retrieved October 20, 2010 from http://www.bostondynamics.com/img/BigDog_IFAC_Apr-8-2008.pdf.

7. United States Department for Labor (2010). Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved October 20, 2010, from http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos329.htm.

8. http://rmp.segway.com/rmp-400/.

9. Dumiak, M. (31 March 2008). “The Firefighting Robot,” Popular Science. Retrieved on October 20, 2010 from http://www.popsci.com/scitech/article/2008-03/firefighting-robot.

10. McCullagh, D. (29 March 2006). “Drone aircraft may prowl U.S. skies.” CNET. Retrieved on October 20, 2010 from http://news.cnet.com/Drone-aircraft-may-prowl-U.S.-skies/2100-11746_3-6055658.html.

11. Frazier, et al. Economic Consequences of Firefighter Injuries and Their Prevention.Arlington, VA: SPC/TriData, 2004. Produced for The U.S. Department of Commerce Fire and Research Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

12. http://www.fire-etc.com/atac360wirelesspantiltthermalcamera.

13. http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/fire/reports/face200628.html.

14. Fisher, D. (1 April 2001). Infrared in the aftermath. Fire Chief. Retrieved on October 19, 2010, from http://firechief.com/mag/firefighting_infrared_aftermath/.

15. Hanlon, M. (7 January 2007). iRobot introduces NexGen Explosive Ordnance Disposal Robot. Gizmag. Retrieved on October 20, 2010, from http://www.gizmag.com/go/6797/.

16. West, P. (2004 March 24). Shoebox-sized Robots Deployed in Rescue Effort at Ground Zero.National Science Foundation. Retrieved on October 19, 2010 from http://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=100675&org=NSF.

17. Vecna website: http://www.vecna.com/robotics/solutions/end_effectors/hg2.shtml.

18. iRobot website: http://store.irobot.com/category/index.jsp?categoryId=3334468.

19. Qinetiq website: http://www.qinetiq-na.com/products-talon.htm.

20. General Atomics website: http://www.ga-asi.com/products/aircraft/predator.php.

21. Guo, X., Lu, H., (26 July 2010). Recent Development of Forest Industrial Robot in China. Intelligent Computation Technology and Automation (ICICTA) 2010 International Conference. 984-987. doi: 10.1109/ICICTA.2010.855.

22. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center. (2002 August). After Action Report to the Joint Program Office: Center for the Robotic Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) Related Efforts at the World Trade Center (Technical Document 3141). San Diego, CA: Blackburn, M., Everett, H.R., Laird, R.T.

23. Sandia National Labs website: http://www.sandia.gov/news-center/news-releases/2005/manuf-tech-robotics/mm-robot.html.

MARIE THOMAS is a senior scientist at System Planning Corporation (SPC). She is a biomedical engineer (biomechanics) with a bachelor of science and double minor degrees in mechanical engineering and chemical engineering from Columbia University. She is a licensed EMT and has been a Red Cross emergency volunteer since 2004. She provides technical contract support to the DARPA Defense Sciences Office.

PHILIP SCHAENMAN is president of TriData Division, System Planning Corporation. He is an electrical engineer with advanced degrees from Columbia and Stanford Universities. He was associate administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration in charge of the new technology program and National Fire Data Center before founding TriData in 1981. He has 35 years of experience consulting for fire departments and evaluating new technology for the fire service.

More Fire Engineering Issue Articles
Fire Engineering Archives