July 30, 2013 By Colin Wood
Whether it’s an extra set of hands on a delicate medical procedure, or an additional eye surveying the area during a covert military mission, robotic technology use is spreading like wildfire throughout the world. So what’s the next step in the evolution of robotics? Firefighting.
A team of engineering graduate students at the University of California, San Diego, has designed a small, two-wheeled prototype robot that eventually can be tossed into a burning building and relay critical information about the scene to firefighters before they enter a structure.
The vision for the project is for it to become common practice for every fire department to own a squad of cheap, semi-autonomous robots that can enter superheated situations and emerge unscathed. The student team of Yuncong Chen, Will Warren, and Daniel Yang recently won a $10,000 grand prize for their robot prototype at the Student Infrared Imaging Competition.
Currently, the prototype can climb stairs and create 3-D images of a building’s interior based on data gathered from a thermal imaging camera mounted to the robot. But it isn’t capable of handling the heat quite yet and it can’t survive hard drops or collaborate with other machines. But that should change in about five years, according to Thomas Bewley, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at UC San Diego. Bewley is also the director of the Coordinated Robotics Lab, where the robot is being developed.
“A good comparison is a pack of hunting dogs,” Bewley said of the idea behind the robots. “First of all, I want these things to work in collaboration. So if one vehicle gets stuck or breaks, other vehicles can pick up the slack.”
If the project works as conceived, firefighters would be able to issue a high-level command like ‘find the gas leak,’ and the robots would work together to map the building’s interior, while wirelessly transmitting the data back to the firefighters. The robots would also get around obstacles like small puddles, sprinkler systems, and hard impacts as they reach their target, with minimal micromanagement by a human.
Bewley said the team is not trying to design the robots to have artificial intelligence, but they do want them to exhibit some degree of decision-making. For example, a robot looking for a gas leak that happened to stumble upon a person shouting for help would change its goal to helping the person first.
The robots will not use standard Wi-Fi to transmit data, but will instead employ military-grade spread-spectrum protocols, in order to keep sensitive information — in the case of crimes such as arson — private. The project team also wants to integrate frequency hopping capabilities, so if one frequency is blocked or unavailable, the robots won’t lose connectivity.
Bewley said his team looked at other small ground robots like the Recon Scout by ReconRobotics, which can be tossed from a moving vehicle at high speeds without being damaged. But unlike that technology, the firefighting robot will be able to climb stairs and withstand extreme temperatures, though probably not direct flame exposure. It should also be cheaper. Bewley hopes the price tag will top out at around $2,000 each.
“We want the vehicles to be cheap enough that firefighters won’t hesitate to send multiple vehicles in, in order to reduce the risks to firefighters themselves going in," Bewley said. "A small firefighting department can’t really afford military grade $100,000 vehicles. Really, we want to use consumer electronics as much as we can.”
The development team also wants to partner with cell phone companies and take advantage of the constant evolution of cameras and other components as they become cheaper and more effective.
Bewley added that in time, he hopes a fire department would ideally have a team of robots with varying specializations. The small robots would serve as the grunts of the robot team, while cheaper, faster four-wheeled robots could be sent into areas of the building with fewer obstacles. Each robot would collect pieces of a common picture that the firefighters could use.
There are a number of obstacles for the research team to overcome before the prototype is ready for action, however. Bewley said damage to the building makes the layout of the building unknown and environmental barriers like smoke and flames also present engineering challenges.
A demonstration video of an early version of the prototype is available on YouTube.