FIREFIGHTINGFireDrone Supports the Firefighters

Published 26 June 2023

Researchers are developing a heat-resistant drone that can analyze the source of danger at close range in the event of a building or forest fire. This allows firefighters to optimize the strategy of a high-risk operation before entering the danger zone.

Where others rush out, they have to go in: Firefighters put themselves in dangerous situations during rescue operations – sometimes right in the midst of a sea of flames. Last year, Swiss fire departments were called out for more than 12,000 firefighting missions. Since temperatures in a burning building can reach lethal levels of around 1,000 degrees Celsius, it is essential to avoid any unnecessary risk. Flying robots could support such missions: Researchers at Empa and Imperial College London are currently developing a heat-resistant drone that can provide initial data from the hot spot. Based on this information, the men and women of the response team can optimize their strategy before venturing into the inferno. “Before they go directly into the danger zone, the firefighters naturally don’t know what exactly awaits them and what difficulties they will encounter,” says Mirko Kovac, head of Empa’s Sustainability Robotics Laboratory and the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College London. Here, for example, drones equipped with cameras and CO2 (carbon dioxide) sensors could provide important information about the distribution of fire sources, unexpected hazards or trapped people.

Too Hot for Normal Drones
Drones are already being used to fight fires, taking aerial photos, lifting fire hoses onto skyscrapers or dropping extinguishing agents in remote areas, for example to contain the spread of forest fires - but only at a safe distance from the source of the fire. “To fly closer, the extreme heat generated by a fire is too great for conventional drones,” says David Häusermann of Empa’s Sustainability Robotics lab. Close to the fire, the frame melts and the electronics give up. “More than aerial photos of the fire site from a safe distance are not possible with commercial drones,” Häusermann says. The researcher’s goal, therefore, was to develop a drone that could withstand the heat and thus provide fast and accurate data from the center of the hot spot.