New drone can enter burning buildings to assess hazards

Researchers from Imperial College London and Empa have successfully developed an innovative drone called FireDrone, which exhibits remarkable heat resistance, enabling it to enter burning structures. This groundbreaking prototype can be deployed in burning buildings or woodland areas to assess risks and gather vital on-site data from hazardous zones. The collected information can then be transmitted to first responders, offering them valuable insights to aid their emergency response efforts.

The FireDrone’s resilience to extreme temperatures is attributed to its employment of a novel thermal aerogel insulation material, supplemented by an integrated cooling system. This remarkable combination allows the drone to endure temperatures of up to 200°C for a duration of ten minutes. While still in the prototype phase, the researchers envision that FireDrone could eventually be utilized to survey fires, identify potential dangers, and enhance firefighting operations.

Professor Mirko Kovac, the Principal Investigator and Director of the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College London, as well as the Head of the Laboratory of Sustainability Robotics at Empa, emphasized the significance of FireDrone in firefighting scenarios. He highlighted that before entering hazardous zones, firefighters face uncertainties regarding the specific risks and challenges they may encounter. FireDrone, with its ability to gather critical information such as the presence of trapped individuals, building layouts, and unforeseen hazards, can assist responders in making informed decisions, ensuring their safety, and potentially saving more lives.

Credit: Empa

Animal-inspired trailblazers

Traditional firefighting drones have limitations when it comes to operating in close proximity to fires due to the risk of frame melting and electronic failure. However, researchers recognized that drones capable of getting closer could significantly assist first responders in preparing for firefighting operations in burning structures or woodland areas. By incorporating insights from animals adapted to extreme temperatures, such as penguins, arctic foxes, and spittlebugs, the researchers drew inspiration for their design.

The drone’s construction involved the development of a protective structural shell composed of lightweight materials with exceptional thermal insulation properties like polyimide aerogel and glass fibers. To further enhance heat resistance, the shell was coated with a super-reflective layer of aluminum, enabling effective heat reflection. The utilization of super-insulation ensures that the materials do not shrink or degrade the pore structures when exposed to high temperatures.

Within this protective exoskeleton, the researchers strategically positioned temperature-sensitive components, including regular and infrared cameras, CO2 sensors, video transmitters, flight controllers, batteries, and radio receivers. They also ingeniously leveraged the release and evaporation of gas from the CO2 sensors to create a cooling system, effectively regulating and reducing internal temperatures of the drone.

By integrating these innovative design elements, the researchers have developed a drone that can withstand extreme heat conditions and operate in close proximity to fires. Equipped with cameras and CO2 sensors, this drone can provide invaluable information about fire layouts and composition, empowering first responders with critical data to enhance their firefighting strategies.

Temperature extremes

To ensure the viability of FireDrone, the researchers conducted rigorous testing in controlled temperature chambers and also flew the drone in close proximity to flames at a firefighter training center. These tests allowed them to evaluate its performance and refine its capabilities. By miniaturizing the drone and incorporating additional sensors, the researchers aim to expand its functionality and pave the way for its deployment in actual firefighting missions, potentially making a significant impact in saving lives.

In addition to its applications in firefighting scenarios, FireDrone exhibits potential for use in extremely cold environments, such as polar regions and glaciers. To assess its behavior under such conditions, the team conducted tests in a glacier tunnel located in Switzerland, providing valuable insights into the drone’s performance in very low temperatures.

While FireDrone remains in the prototype stage, the researchers view it as a significant advancement toward the development of other drones capable of withstanding extreme temperatures. They are currently engaged in validating the technology with key industrial stakeholders and partners, ensuring its compatibility and effectiveness in real-world applications.

Professor Kovac expressed his optimism, stating that the ability to overcome environmental constraints like temperature opens up new possibilities for drone utilization in extreme environments. By drawing inspiration from how animals adapt to such extremes and employing innovative technologies, the researchers believe that deploying robots in challenging conditions can greatly mitigate risks to human lives.

The research detailing the FireDrone’s development and capabilities can be found in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems.

Source: Imperial College London

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