'FireDrone' can enter burning buildings and help save lives

Developed by Imperial College London and the Empa Research Institute, the currently experimental drone is said to withstand temperatures of 392 ºF for at least 10 minutes.
Christopher McFadden
Fireproof drone.

A team of researchers from Imperial College London and The Empa Research Institute are working to build a fire-resistant drone.

Designed to survive for an extended period in a raging fire, the new drone could offer vital reconnaissance services for firefighters. Named the 'FireDrone', the currently experimental drone is said to withstand temperatures of 392 ºF (200 ºC) for at least 10 minutes.

The drone can survive 392 ºF temperatures

"Before they [firefighters] go directly into the danger zone, the firefighters naturally don't know what exactly awaits them and what difficulties they will encounter," Mirko Kovac, head of Empa's Sustainability Robotics Laboratory and the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College London, said in a statement.

But with house fires typically exceeding 1,932 ºF (1,000 ºC), even this new drone wouldn't last very long. But it would survive much longer than conventional drones. "To fly closer, the extreme heat generated by a fire is too great for conventional drones," said 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," he added.

A modified quadcopter, the new drone's heat resistance is provided by an insulating layer of aerogel around its electronics. This provides excellent, though limited, protection for its vital components. This specialized gel was designed for the project and is primarily composed of polyimide plastic, silica, and glass fibers, with air pockets interspersed throughout. The glass fibers offer structural support, while an outer aluminum layer effectively deflects heat away from the drone.

The 'FireDrone' is equipped with a battery, flight controller, video transmitter, radio receiver, and various sensors like an optical camera, infrared camera, and CO2 sensor. Its purpose is to provide real-time data to emergency responders when entering a burning building. The data includes the location of fire sources, hazardous areas to avoid, and trapped individuals. Additionally, the CO2 sensor creates a cooling effect within the drone as gas evaporates.

The drone could also be used for forest fires

The 'FireDrone' has already undergone successful testing in a firefighter training center, with further trials scheduled for the future. When it becomes available for commercial use, the drone could potentially be employed to evaluate forest fires or explore extremely cold environments, owing to its insulating aerogel.

"The application of drones is often limited by environmental factors like temperature," added Kovac. "We demonstrate a way to overcome this and are convinced our findings will help to unleash the future power of drones for extreme environments," he said.

You can view the study on the drone in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems.

Study Abstract:

"Deploying robots in extreme environments reduces risks to human lives. However, robot operating conditions are often limited by environmental factors such as extreme temperatures encountered in fire disasters or polar regions. Especially drones face challenges in carrying thermal management systems protecting vital components, due to limited payload capacity compared to ground robots. Herein, a thermally agnostic aerial robot comprising structural thermally insulating material and a phase change material cooling system, inspired by natural thermal regulation principles, is designed, modeled, and experimentally validated. Building on the robot development paradigm of physical artificial intelligence, the concurrent development of materials and design enables the creation of novel physiologically adaptive systems. Polyimide aerogel is applied as one of the main structural materials in the drone's design to adapt the robot's structure and properties to extreme temperatures. Glass fiber reinforcement with silica aerogel particles reduces high-temperature shrinkage and pore structure degradation after exposure to high temperatures and most of the composite aerogel features are preserved. A high technology-readiness-level drone prototype, allowing for operation in a broad range of ambient temperatures, is demonstrated. The proposed technology for thermally agnostic drones may unleash the great potential of aerial robotics in multiple industrial and research applications."

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