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.

The 4,300-pound vehicle has a 125-mile range, can be programmed to follow a person or another vehicle, operated with voice controls, tethered or remote controlled with a line of sight and can even be controlled via satellite by remote operating stations.

While it’s anyone’s guess whether the fire service will embrace the technology, it’s not the first entry into the robotic firefighting market.

As I mentioned earlier, the Navy is working on a firefighting robot and trying to develop human-centric autonomous system for fire safety and damage control. The initiative is part of the Innovative Naval Prototype program – Damage Control Technologies for the 21st Century (DC-21).

The objective of the shipboard autonomous firefighting robot (SAFFiR) is to develop human-centric, autonomous systems for fire safety and damage control. This will reduce ship’s vulnerability to damage and decrease the recovery time while significantly reducing life cycle costs, size and weight of future damage control systems.

This technology will allow the Navy to meet damage recovery mandates and reduce human risks. The SAFFiR is a key component of a candidate Innovative Naval Prototype program – Damage Control Technologies for the 21st Century (DC-21).

While some have called the Navy’s robot creepy (it has a face that looks a little like Casper the ghost) it is designed to interpret human gesturing and natural dialog, interacting with real firefighters as a member of a team.

Sensors allow the robot to have situational awareness and the ability to detect gases and incipient fires.

When they’re deployed in the field for real, no estimate on when, they’ll be able to navigate ships easily with 3-D maps programmed into their systems, use thermal shielding equipment and manipulate fire suppressors, like nozzles and hoses.

Ships are reportedly very dangerous environments in which to fight fire and we can pretty easily figure out why. If I could send a robot into that environment rather than a human firefighter, I would do that all day long.

Closer to reality was the successful deployment of a Korean-made robotic firefighting tank-like vehicle at 400,000 square foot factory fire in Hoopeston, Ill., in June.

The 400-pound, two-foot tall steel firefighting machine dragged a charged 2-inch hose deep into a collapsed building and put out hot spots that neither humans firefighters, nor those on aerials could reach.

Students and faculty were helping the company perfect the device and it was the first “real-world” deployment of the device. It proved very promising. It was originally designed to deliver water in places just like the used tire processing facility, but Purdue faculty and students think it has much more potential. With a few more sensors, it could test for gases in inaccessible areas, and for floor integrity in fires or collapsed structures.

Humankind has the capacity to engineer and imagine its way out of any situation. Ingenuity is usually only limited by need and finances.

I have long been skeptical of robots in the fire service, but I think we’re on the verge of a breakthrough that could revolutionize the way we fight, and prevent, fires. There are a lot of really smart people working on it in universities and industrial setting nationwide. I believe they're doing it to keep firefighters safe.

When innovation, creativity and need match up with financial feasibility, I predict we’ll see some dramatic changes in firefighting techniques.

After all, we are in the 21st century and isn’t that when all the science fiction stuff is supposed to become reality.

Stay tuned.