Fire-fighting robot could change the game for local fire departments

A fire-fighting robot is changing the way an Indiana fire department is attacking industrial fires, and Purdue researchers say it could have helped with the Indianapolis warehouse fire that burned for days last weekend.

A research team at Purdue is trying to help change the way firefighters attack dangerous warehouse fires.

“You can put the robot in places where you would never dream of putting a human being,” said Eric Dietz, director of the Purdue Homeland Security Institute.

Dietz is part of a team from Purdue that is helping a Korean company test a prototype robot that allows firefighters to remotely maneuver and put out fires.

“It’s very simple,” Dietz said, pointing to the robot, which looks like a small tank connected to a fire hose.

A person operates the robot with a remote control. The machine, designed to go inside smoke-filled buildings, has an infrared camera that allows the operator to see where it’s going.

The robot got its first real world test at a major warehouse fire in eastern Illinois on Wednesday. The Purdue Fire Department was called in to assist inside the 400,000-square-foot building.

“When we first arrived, some of the firefighters–both career and volunteers–were a little skeptical (of the robot).” said Purdue Fire Chief Kevin Ply.

That all changed as soon as they sent the robot into a large area in danger of collapsing. Firefighters weren’t safe inside, but they were able to maneuver the robot around debris and attack the flames in a way they never had before.

“It traveled approximately 150 to 175 feet back into a partially collapsed structure and we were able to deploy water where the aerial devices were not able to reach,” Ply said. “The longer we started using it, the more people came and started watching it. We, in fact, had a lot of firefighters breaking out their cell phones and were recording it and taking pictures.”

The robot is also beneficial because it allows fire departments to precisely target their hoses.

“Water in a fire can be a very scarce resource,” Dietz said. “So that’s another thing. By putting the robot in, you can conserve the water and put it only where it’s needed.”

Dietz says the goal isn’t to replace firefighters, he says it’s designed to save them.

“Ideally we’d like to see this be an integral part of a fire apparatus, and just another tool that they pull out of the back for a situation that is needed to help protect the firefighters lives,” Dietz said.

The Purdue Fire Department said the robot worked well fighting the warehouse fire for roughly four hours. However, they did notice problems when the battery began to drain–exactly the kind of issue that the Purdue team is looking to improve before the device goes on the market.

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