By Alan M. Petrillo
Robot vehicles and unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) are expected to have a future in the fire service once the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues new regulations for use of UASs in civil airspace. Some incident commanders (ICs) see UAS use as a method of investigating a fire scene before committing resources, providing intelligence that could only previously be obtained from fire boots on the ground. Wildland fire managers envision UASs overflying wildfires to provide a bird’s-eye view of their behavior, track, and intensity.
Other ICs see the possibility of using ground-based robots to investigate a fire scene, like a crawling robot with three-dimensional thermal imaging to paint a picture of the interior of a structure fire. Likewise, some ICs are looking to the near future where fire suppression robots can be used in places where ICs would not want to put human firefighters.
On the UAS front, the FAA has been charged by the United States Congress to meet a September 2015 deadline for integrating commercial UAS (often confusingly called drones) into United States airspace. But, the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General recently warned that the FAA will miss the deadline because of unresolved technological, regulatory, and privacy issues. However, the FAA says it intends to accommodate UAS operators at limited locations around the country. Typically, a certificate of authorization (COA) from the FAA is required before a public agency can officially operate a UAS. A COA is an authorization issued by the Air Traffic Organization to a public operator for a specific unmanned aircraft activity. The FAA conducts a comprehensive operational and technical review as part of the approval process to ensure the unmanned aircraft can operate safely with other airspace users.
|1 A Darley Stinger quad-rotor unmanned aircraft system (UAS) makes a training run, operated by a firefighter from New Zealand Fire and Rescue. (Photo courtesy of W.S. Darley & Company.)
Click picture to view video.
Alternatively, civilians are allowed to fly unmanned aerial aircraft, usually rotor-type units that look and act like miniature helicopters, as long as the aircraft stay below 400 feet in altitude, don’t interfere with other aircraft, and don’t operate in air restriction zones like around airports. A number of fire chiefs report civilians flying such aircraft near fire scenes, including wildland fires. Other chiefs report firefighters using such devices as “hobbyists” at fire scenes.
Mike Mocerino, Stinger project manager for W.S. Darley & Company, says his company makes the Stinger, a UAS that employs a quad-rotor design and weighs less than 4.5 pounds with a flight time of between 20 and 30 minutes, depending on its configuration. Mocerino says the Stinger “allows first responders to quickly and effectively survey a fire scene or hazardous incident within minutes.”
|2 Hovering opposite a fire training tower, a Darley Stinger transmits data back to an iPad, iPhone, or other comparable device. (Photo courtesy of W.S. Darley & Company.)
Click picture to view video.
The Stinger carries a high-definition video camera and transmitter and a high-definition infrared camera with a Persistent Systems Way Relay for thermal imaging. Stinger can tolerate wind gusts of up to 50 miles per hour (mph), Mocerino notes. It runs on six lithium polymer rechargeable batteries, is controlled by a ruggedized touch screen by point-and-click navigation, and can be secured in a portable backpack.
Darley also has been partnering with Physical Sciences Inc.’s Tactical Robotics division, the maker of the InstantEye, a quad-rotor aircraft about the size of a dinner plate. “It’s very durable; weighs a pound and a half; is little affected by atmospheric effects; can withstand 30-mph winds; and can fly in rain, snow, and other inclement weather conditions,” says InstantEye training and services manager Art Petitt.
Mocerino says Darley is working closely with Tactical Robotics to bring the InstantEye platform into Darley’s system of robotics to complement the Stinger. “InstantEye has a longer flight duration than the Stinger, flies in adverse conditions, is quarter the size of the Stinger, and is a perfect fit for the fire world,” he points out. “The size of the InstantEye unit will dictate what sensor packages it will carry as well as its payload capabilities.”
|3 An iRobot 110 First Look robot investigates a room filled with suspected hazardous materials. (Photo courtesy of iRobot Corp.)|
Mocerino notes the larger Stinger has bigger payload options, up to five pounds, which allow it to carry an array of different detectors or even drag a rope to an inaccessible area. “We have units that are deployed by the New Zealand National Fire Service and used on a weekly basis for various tasks, including reconnaissance and recording of structure fires,” Mocerino points out. “The New Zealanders are able to position fire trucks where they are needed by using the Stinger and keep an eye on firefighting operations on the ground. Later, they can use the recorded footage as a training aid.”
Mocerino notes that the Valley Township (PA) Fire Department recently purchased a Stinger and may opt to convert the order to an InstantEye. “They are working with the FAA to get their airworthiness certificate,” he says.
Petitt says that InstantEye could prove to be a valuable tool in the fight against wildfires. “Its use could be very significant in determining fire spread and the types of hazards that are in the way of the fire,” he says. “It gives command and control the element of a third-dimension perspective without calling in manned aircraft.”
|4 The iRobot 510 PackBot can carry a wide variety of third-party cameras, sensors, and tools. It is shown using a video camera on an investigation mission. (Photo courtesy of iRobot Corp.)|
Mocerino says a number of fire departments have told him they have money set aside for UASs but are waiting on the FAA regulations before they purchase them. “I’ve talked with two dozen fire departments ,and they have come up with 20 different uses for our system,” he says.
Rod Carringer, chief marketing officer for Task Force Tips and a retired chief and captain of the Center Township Fire Department, LaPorte, Indiana, believes that “hundreds of departments are using UAS quietly, as hobbyists, because we are seeing tactical videos of their use showing up on YouTube.” Usually the UASs are remote-controlled helicopter products, Carringer notes, with a range of a quarter to a half mile and running high-resolution cameras feeding into an iPad or iPhone or other such device on the ground.
“Someone can put one of these in service for $300 to $400,” Carringer points out, “all the way to a couple of thousand to $15,000 for quad copter models. The market for these vehicles is moving on without the FAA issuing rules.”
Carringer believes UASs are excellent tools for ICs. “They are great for making quick tactical decisions and knowing a whole lot more than what the boots on the ground know,” he says. “They allow an IC to see all four sides of a building and all the surrounding areas.”
In terms of robotic firefighting units, Carringer sees a place for them in the fire industry. “They can carry sensing and camera equipment, thermal imaging equipment, lighting, and even drag hoselines,” he points out. “And, don’t forget that in addition to ground robotic units, there are uses for water robotics too.”
|5 Some fire departments around the country are using remote-controlled helicopter products common to the civilian market as hobbyists (not officially) for fire training and even at fire scenes. (Photo courtesy of Rod Carringer.)|
Tom Phelps, director of robotic products, North America, for iRobot Corporation, says his company makes a number of robots suitable for use in the fire industry, including the 110 First Look designed for quick-response tactical situations but also useful in confined space calls: the 310SUGV, originally designed for explosive ordnance disposal yet reconfigured as a backpackable robot that can access rugged terrain for emergency responders; the 510 PackBot that can be expanded as a user’s needs change and can adapt to a wide variety of third-party cameras, sensors, and tools; and the 710 Warrior robot, a 500-pound platform that can lift 300 pounds and carry a 150-pound payload.
“We know there’s not one robot that meets every mission in the fire service,” Phelps says, “but the two where we have seen growth are in the confined space area and for quick reconnaissance by being thrown into an area.” First Look is a lightweight, expandable robot that gives commanders immediate situational awareness, performs persistent observation, and can investigate dangerous and hazardous materials while keeping its operator out of harm’s way, he says. The unit can also carry a thermal imaging camera (TIC).
|6 The FIRO 1100 robot developed by Purdue University and the Korean firm of LOFA Robotics can flow 1,000 gpm through a single nozzle fed by a 2½-inch supply hose. (Photo courtesy of LOFA Robotics.)|
The 510 PackBot can be outfitted with a HazMat suite, says Charlie Vaida, iRobot’s manager of corporate communications. “The HazMat suite has seven sensors integrated into the unit, five of which can be operated at the same time. You also can use the agility of the robot’s arm to get into hard-to-reach places to get a chemical hit or evaluate different materials.”
The base platform of the 510 PackBot weighs 50 pounds, but, with its sensor packages, edges up to 75 pounds. It’s two feet long, 1.5 feet wide, and in its stow position 14 inches high. Vaida says the 510 can reach up to 72 inches and easily fits into a pickup truck or an SUV.
Lockheed Martin Corp., which makes the Fire Ox, says the multimission, semiautonomous unmanned ground vehicle can be used for fire suppression, trenching, hazmat, mop up, situational awareness, communications, logistics, casualty or injury evacuation, and three-dimensional mapping and navigation. Fire Ox can be operated in a “Follow Me” mode where it follows a designated person, through GPS Waypoint Navigation, or Retro-Traverse, where it returns via the path generated to the point of origin.
The Fire Ox is outfitted with a 1.5 AGE high-pressure, low-volume pump and 10-hp diesel engine, a 250-gallon polypropylene water tank with a 12-gallon integrated foam cell, a main pump discharge and intake plumbing, a booster reel, a 1.5 Class A automatic proportioning foam system, a 1-kW portable generator, high-intensity lighting, and a drip torch tray and holders.
|7 The FIRO robot can drag approximately 360 feet of charged 2½-inch supply line before it is stopped by the weight of the hose and water. (Photo courtesy of LOFA Robotics.)|
Eric Matson, assistant professor at Purdue University’s Department of Computer and Information Technology, works in the robotics field and spends approximately 12 weeks a year in Korea doing outreach for Purdue with Korean robotics firms. A group at Purdue recently formed a partnership with the Koreans-LOFA Robotics-to build firefighting robots and fire suppression robotics. “There’s a tremendous interest from fire departments in the United States in this technology,” Matson says. “We have had robots working with fire and police departments at Purdue and in West Lafayette, Indiana.”
Matson says that LOFA has produced the FIRO 1100, a robot with a nozzle rate of 1,000 gallons per minute (gpm) fed by a single 2½-inch hose. “We are limited by the amount of hose the unit can drag into a fire and the range of the radio between the robot and the control unit,” Matson points out. “Our robot can drag about 110 meters (approximately 360 feet) of 2½-inch line into a fire. But if we add any more, the robot begins doing a wheelie because of the weight of the hose.”
|8 The Fire Ox, made by Lockheed Martin Corporation, carries a 1.5 AGE 1,000-gpm high-pressure, low-volume pump; a 10-hp diesel engine; a 250-gallon water tank; 12 gallons of foam; a Class A foam proportioning system; one 2½-inch discharge; and a 1-kW portable generator. (Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin Corporation.)|
Common uses for the FIRO robot, Matson notes, are structural fires where an IC doesn’t want to put humans; large warehouse fires, where it is necessary to get deep into the structure to extinguish the flames; hazmat applications; and when commanders are worried about structural collapse and don’t want to commit human resources to the interior of a building. “The FIRO carries a TIC so its controller sees that image,” Matson says. “He sees exactly what the robot is facing.”
LOFA Robotics also has a relationship with another Korean firm that makes the Hoyarobot, a hand-throwable reconnaissance robot for fire industry use. “You pull the pin and throw it in an upper window,” Matson says, “recon the floor, and drive it down the stairs to each floor.”
ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief.