Albert McKeon

Aug 30th 2018

Robots and NASA-developed Tents: the Latest in Firefighting Tech


Dalmatians can still be seen riding in FDNY fire trucks barreling down the streets of New York City’s five boroughs. The dogs now only serve as mascots after fulfilling an important responsibility well into the early 20th century: acting as soothing companions to the nervous horses that pulled the fire wagons.

While dalmatians are one of the few remnants of the past that are still visible on the modern fire truck, firefighting technology advances are making the profession seem almost futuristic. Drones, robot-like helmets and NASA-inspired heat shields are just some of the innovations that could enhance firefighter safety — welcome news as wildfires continue to pose a threat to firefighters.

Flying Where Firefighters Can’t

The public’s recognition of fire prevention and safety are a reason why structure fires have continued to decline over the decades. There were approximately 1.1 million such fires in the U.S. in 1977 and only 501,500 in 2015, according to the latest data from the National Fire Protection Association. At the same time, small tweaks continue to be made to the fire- and heat-resistant gear that enables firefighters to enter burning structures to save lives. But no matter the gains in personal protective equipment — including motion sensors on firefighters that send an alert when they are trapped — firefighting is still a risky profession.

That risk is especially high when battling wildfires. Dead trees are potent fuel for fires, making wildfires more intense and less predictable than structure fires. After more than 8 million acres of land burned in 2017, the National Interagency Coordination Center predicts 2018 will bring “above-average significant” wildland fire potential in nearly a dozen western states.

Here’s where a drone could help. Wildfires are more effectively fought at night, when winds are typically not as severe as in the daytime. But, as National Geographic notes, manned aircraft are sometimes forbidden by safety regulations to fly in an area at night unless they’ve already flown it during the day, which could impede the use of helicopters and planes that arrive on the scene late in the day.

A drone, however, can escape these restrictions. It can also reach heights that humans can’t. So far, lightweight prototype drones haven’t been able to carry the heavy weight of water-filled hoses, but expect drones to someday have the capacity to fly nimbly with heavy hoses at the ready.

Finding Safety in Robots and Grenades

It’s not too far-fetched to imagine robots becoming the next breed of firefighters. Northrop Grumman has already made progress here with Remotec, a mobile robotic ground system that’s used by the military, law enforcement and first responders for hazardous situations that would improve firefighter safety.

An Italian company is developing a humanoid robot called Walk-Man that can inch close to a fire and douse it with an extinguisher. While it is firefighting, Walk-Man sends images of the fire scene to a human emergency team that can analyze the situation and remotely guide the robot, according to Digital Trends. Walk-Man recently passed a test that would make many humans sweat: It extinguished a fire and turned off a gas leak in a simulated disaster.

Meanwhile, a Swedish company is creating a helmet for human firefighters that looks as if it’s from the blueprints of a robotic design. Called C-Thru, the helmet projects data such as room temperature, remaining oxygen and Co2 levels, and it uses a thermal imaging camera so firefighters can see through heavy smoke. Interesting Engineering reported the details of C-Thru, along with a reminder about an old-fashioned firefighting technique that could be used today: grenades. While technically a glass ball, this fire-extinguishing “grenade” was used in the 1900s, breaking and releasing everything from saltwater to tetrachloromethane in order to extinguish a blaze.

Seeking Spacecraft-type Shelter

Sometimes, no level of personal equipment can protect firefighters from unpredictable flames that reach nearly 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s why the U.S. Forest Service is testing fire shelters designed by NASA. With nowhere to go in the wilderness, firefighters could seek quick shelter in the reflective, foil-like mini tents.

To create the fire shelter, NASA used inflatable heat-shield technology that withstands temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the same temperatures that spacecraft endure when moving through Earth’s atmosphere, according to Scientific American.

Fire shelters and the other firefighting technology advances are a reminder that engineering continues to seek new ways to solve a longstanding concern: keeping firefighters safe.