Ballam: Robots in The Fire Service? Say it Ain't So.

Robots fighting fire? Preposterous, you might say. But wait a minute, the future is here and autonomous fighting machines are making their way into the fire service in a big way.


Robots fighting fire? Preposterous, you might say. But wait a minute, the future is here and autonomous fighting machines are making their way into the fire service in a big way.

As far-fetched and “Star Wars” like as it might sound, there will be a day when our colleagues will have nerves of steel, literally.

I was at the International Fire Chiefs Association Fire Rescue International show in Chicago recently and one of the myriad of things that immediately caught my eyes was a red six-wheel amphibious looking rig that I had never seen before. Trust me. I’ve been to a lot of trade shows over the years and it takes quite a lot for me to stop in my tracks.

The gizmo at FRI isn’t the only robotic thing the fire service is trying out. The Navy is working on a Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) unit that looks like a human. And Purdue University successfully deployed a tracked firefighting robot at a used tire processing building fire in Hoopeston, Ill., earlier this year. But more about those later.

I circled the beast at the McCormack Convention Center in Chicago looking for its operator’s seat and controls. I couldn’t find any. There must be a problem. I walked around again and found a 9,000-pound winch on the front, and a remote-controlled turret monitor on what resembled a front bumper. There were red warning lights on the vehicle, that’s about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, a chainsaw, some hose, a skid unit with a pump and tank, a patient litter, some forestry tools.

Nope. No place for the operator.

The vendor from Lockheed Martin noticed my puzzled mug. I couldn’t help myself. “Where’s the operator’s controls,” I asked.

“There isn’t any,” the pleasant young man responded with a knowing smile “It’s autonomous.”

What? The maker’s representative then said there was a manual override stick deep in the belly of the beast just in case.

It’s mission, however, is to follow firefighters into battle, lugging stuff that’s either too heavy or to give personnel a break from backpack and equipment toting. It can be programmed to literally follow a person through just about anything and anywhere, or it can be programmed to go to a set of coordinates all by itself, hence the autonomous part of the vehicle’s features.

The vehicle is so new it literally did not exist a week before the FRI show. The firefighting vehicle is based on Lockheed Martin’s Squad Mission Support System unmanned ground vehicle designed for the military in Afghanistan deployments. According to the maker, four SMSS vehicles were sent to Afghanistan for a five-month in-theater assessment where they were used for combat outpost and strong point resupply, demolition material transport, communications equipment transport, portable power and battery charging and transport of infrastructure material like fencing equipment and tools.

So, what does that have to do with firefighting you might say? Good question.

There’s speculation that as military spending dries up, government vendors are looking for new customers and part of their business model is providing equipment to the fire service. Hence, Lockheed Martin’s modified SMSS showing up on the show floor of IAFC’s FRI show.

At the show, company representatives say the new-modified SMSS can provide similar services to firefighters as it does in the field with soldiers and go where it’s not safe to send personnel.

Granted, the unit is a rudimentary robot, but anytime a machine can do something by itself using hi-tech electronic wizardry, it’s pretty cool.

The red machine at the show, powered by a Kubota diesel engine, carried firefighting water in a tank, had a pump and a reel with hose and nozzle, plus at least one extinguisher and enough hand tools to supply a wildland firefighting crew, plus a few other accessories that appear to be completely customizable for whatever needs the agency might require.

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