VIDEO GAMES INSPIRE REAL-LIFE FIREFIGHTING ROBOT
Reckless of the raging heat and the billowing fireballs, the firefighter advances undaunted towards the blazing car. Getting within range to start dousing the flames, the firefighter spots a person slumped unconscious over the steering wheel and messages back to colleagues to summon help.
Even though the driver survives the inferno as a result, the firefighter never receives a bravery medal - or indeed any kind of recognition. This kind of dramatic rescue is just part of a routine day’s work.
The reason? This firefighter is a highly developed robot, not a human being.
Meet Firerob, a unique firefighting machine packed with state-of-the-art technology.
It may sound like something out of the film Robocop, but it is already a reality. Thanks to Firerob, blazes impossible for conventional firefighting techniques can now be successfully overcome - in collapsing buildings, in confined spaces like tunnels, or in other hazardous locations.
The potential for saving human lives is clearly enormous.
Developed by Croatian firm DOK-ING, better know for producing mine-clearing machines, Firerob is remotely controlled by an operator using a joystick.
“It’s very simple to drive,” says Zoran Boskovic, the man in charge of Research and Development at DOK-ING, during a practical demonstration. “We actually took the idea from video games.”
Looking part fire-engine, part bulldozer and part military tank, Firerob moves on caterpillar tracks. Up front, it has a bulldozer blade equipped with a gripper tool. In true Robocop style, it can punch through brick or concrete walls and pick up objects weighing up to 5 tonnes.
On-board, Firerob boasts seven cameras, including a thermal imaging system which allows it to spot people.
“It can recognise human silhouettes in smoke and inform the operator, so the operator can pull back the machine and send the firefighters to rescue,” says Boskovic.
Firerob also has a GPS system enabling it to be navigated accurately, and software which lets it “see” and recognise objects – such as dangerous or flammable materials which need to be removed.
The cost of developing the Firerob prototype was largely met by an 800,000 euro European Union grant. That grant was made under a scheme designed to help small and medium sized business in Europe work together and come up with innovations that would otherwise be impossible if they worked alone.
In the case of Firerob, one direct benefit of the grant was that it put DOK-ING in contact with a Scottish firm, Scot-ATRI, which provided special heat-resistant paint allowing the machine to work for longer in the intense heat of a blaze.
As DOK-ING’s Sales Manager, Mladen Jovanovic, points out, the potential of Firerob is vast. “This machine can be used in nuclear power plants, the chemical industry, oil refineries, ammunition depots. That means in all industries and situations where the object might explode any second,” he says.
Two Firerobs have been sold to the Russian government, and R&D director Zoran Boskovic is already planning further improvements. He wants to make Firerob even more autonomous. “I think a real robotic vehicle has to do everything alone, without the operator,” he says.
Freed from the need to control the Firerob’s movements, the operator would be able to concentrate exclusively on the camera images and determine the correct strategy to fight the fire. “That is the next goal,” says Boskovic.
From an idea provided by video gaming to saving lives in the most hazardous of real-life situations, scientific innovation really is turning fiction into reality.