Imperial College London and MBA researchers have developed a drone that can withstand temperatures high enough to enter burning buildings.
The prototype drone, called FireDrone, could be sent to burning buildings or forested areas to assess hazards and provide critical first-level data from danger zones. The data will be sent to first responders to help inform their emergency response.
The drone is made of a new thermal airgel insulation material and has a built-in cooling system that can withstand temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius for ten minutes. Currently in the prototype stage, the researchers believe the Firedrone could eventually be used to remove fires for people and detect additional hazards to put out fires.
Principal investigator Professor Mirko Kovac, director of the Aerial Robotics Laboratory at Imperial College London and head of the Stability Robotics Laboratory at the EMBA, said: “Until they enter the danger zone, we cannot say for sure what or who the firefighters are. Find out what challenges they will face.
„The FireDrone can be deployed to gather critical information about people trapped, building structure, unexpected hazards, etc. so that responders can prepare accordingly to keep themselves safe and save more lives.”
Trailblazers inspired by animals
Drones are already being used from afar to take aerial views of firefighting operations, load fire hoses into skyscrapers, or drop fire retardant in remote areas to slow the spread of wildfires. However, current drones developed for firefighting cannot fly very close because their frames will melt and their electronics will fail.
Based on interviews with firefighters, the researchers knew drones could help prepare first responders for entering burning buildings or forested areas. Drones equipped with cameras and carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors, for example, can provide important information about the structure and composition of fires.
They looked to animals that live in extreme temperatures, such as penguins, arctic foxes and spittlebugs, for inspiration. All of these have appropriate layers of fat, fur, or develop their own thermoregulating substances that allow them to thrive in extreme conditions.
To build the drone, they created a protective structural shell made of lightweight, heat-insulating materials such as polyamide aerogel and glass fibers. They coated it with super-reflective aluminum to reflect heat. Super-insulation prevents materials from shrinking and pore structures from deforming after exposure to high temperatures.
Inside the protective exoskeleton, they placed temperature-sensitive components such as conventional and infrared cameras, CO2 sensors, video transmitters, flight controllers, batteries and radio receivers. They used the release and evaporation of gas from the CO2 sensors to create a cooling system to lower the temperature.
They tested the drone in temperature-controlled rooms and flew near fires at a firefighter training center. They hope their ongoing work to miniaturize the drone and add additional sensors will lead to its deployment in real-life firefighting missions and help save lives.
FireDrone can be used in extreme cold environments, polar regions and glaciers. The robot has been tested in a glacier tunnel in Switzerland to study how the system performs in extremely cold temperatures.
Although the Firedrone is still in the prototype stage, the researchers say it is a stepping stone for the development of other drones that can withstand extreme temperatures, and the team is now validating the technology with key industry stakeholders and partners.
Professor Kovac said: „The use of drones is often limited by environmental factors such as temperature. We demonstrate a way to overcome this and hope that our findings will help unleash the future power of drones for extreme environments.
„Placing robots in extreme environments offers huge benefits in reducing the risks to human life, and who better to see than animals that have developed their own ways to adapt to these extremes by using them to stay cool in the heat.”
1. “FireDrone: A Multi-Environmental Thermal-Agnostic Aerial Robot”, David Huserman et al. Published in Advanced Intelligent Systems. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/aisy.202300101
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