Autonomous firefighting robots ready for duty.

Scientific American reports on a growing number of firefighters who don’t have to worry about smoke inhalation or blistering heat – because they’re self-steering robots, and they’re getting cheaper to build every day:

One of the most affordable automatons developed thus far was built by a group of university students using widely available off-the-shelf materials. An unassuming machine resembling a teched-out, canary yellow go-cart, it carries a water tank and a shoebox-size PC; the latter uses information from onboard sensors to move around without crashing into obstacles. A skinny arm protrudes above the chassis and can bend in several places, including an upper “elbow” that twists into angles beyond what a human limb could tolerate. The arm is tipped with a heat-sensing camera, another camera that measures depth and color, and a nozzle. In a recent demonstration this robot pauses in a doorway to get its geospatial bearings, then rolls smoothly into position to assess the room. The tip of the arm rotates, scanning the walls in search of a heat source. When it finds one, it aims the nozzle and opens up, spraying water in a grid pattern precisely over the hotspot. The fire out, the robot pauses in a puddle as if taking a ceremonial bow. It recently won the 2020 Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge.

What makes this working-class cousin to R2-D2 unique is the way its student designers combined hardware components with software intelligence, says [NYU professor Giuseppe] Loianno, who coordinated the project. The students demonstrated that an autonomous firefighter can be built for around $40,000 to $50,000—even as little as $10,000—by using less-expensive components, Loianno adds. That’s 30 times cheaper than the cost of some firefighting bots currently in use.

One August night, drones flew over a carefully selected section of California’s nearly million-acre Dixie Fire, dropping incendiary spheres on a mountainside ahead of the advancing flames to start what is known as a backfire. The ignitions slowly walked the intentional burn down the hill, consuming fuel and leaving a fire-unfriendly zone in its wake. Once it reached a distance within 30 feet of a town, ground firefighters could safely put it out to protect homes.

This highly specialized mission is limited by a Federal Aviation Administration rule that requires human operators to be within two miles of most remote-controlled aircraft. Some drone missions are legally required to maintain a line of sight from the operator to the craft. Using autonomous drones would increase the operational distance and provide even greater protection for firefighters, [U.S. Forest Service Unmanned Aircraft Systems manager Dirk] Giles says.