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  • Jerry Schultz, P.E.

Robotic Firefighting

I will go back to solid shelving in my next blog post, but I thought we might need a break from such a highly technical concept to look at something fun. This post will take a brief look at firefighting robots and show how this concept promises to change the firefighting industry. Everyone is seeing more and more robots in the workforce and the warehouse field is no exception. Pulling boxes through an Automatic Storage Retrieval System (AS/RS) is such a common practice nowadays that one could envision a future where automation changes the world again, like the Industrial Revolution. One such advance that is receiving increased interest is robotic firefighting.

The first question always asked when we introduce a new technology is--How much is that going to cost? According to “Fire Loss in the US during 2011” collected by the NFPA, fire departments in the United States annually respond to about a half-million structure fires. These fires lead to more than 2,500 civilian fatalities, 15,000 injuries and property losses of approximately $10 billion. And if you consider that 70,090 firefighter injuries occurred in the line of duty that same year, robotics does make sense.

It is always interesting to go back and look at where we were at a given point in time and see how far we have progressed. In 2010, the Society of Fire Protection Engineers held a workshop on high-challenge warehouse fires during the Suppression, Detection and Signaling Research and Applications Symposium (SUPDET) in Orlando, FL. Six fire protection consulting engineering firms (including FPI) elected to participate and develop a protection scheme for a high challenge, high bay warehouse. We were given free reign and tasked with outlining how one could protect the presented scenario. The intent of the scenario was to “stimulate further discussion on a matter of critical importance to industry, insurers, the fire service, and standards development organizations.” It was intended to spark further work to create solutions that are both realistic and cost effective. The method of protection developed by each firm was summarized in a PowerPoint presentation made by Richard Gallagher and Mike Gollner of Zurich Services Corporation.

The PowerPoint presentation High Challenge Warehouse Case Study can be downloaded here:

And the article that appeared in NFPA Journal can be found here:

In the end, both FPI and Hughes Associates recommended High Expansion Foam as the primary extinguishing agent while several of the other firms ended up requiring ESFR sprinklers within the rack (which I have addressed in an earlier blog and FM Global is now pushing). However, what I found interesting is that several firms talked about tying a camera into the AS/RS system so that the actual fire location could be visually identified. This would allow for a more localized approach to extinguishment. Although the term wasn’t used, in my mind this led to thinking about robot firefighting. Why couldn’t we also add an extinguishing media to the AS/RS to achieve this localized approach?

I recently came across a company that is selling a system that combines a thermal camera with a monitor nozzle for outside use. They appear to have taken this “robot fire fighters” concept and developed it ( for the market. In researching the concept, I saw that the Navy is developing a robot fire fighter (SAFFiR-see photo 1) for ship board fires which resembles a human. Due to the unique nature of ship board fires, the robot must be able to open doors and step through bulkheads. (

Photo 1-SAFFiR

This is a unique application and the Fire Rover concept is probably more likely to occur. We are all familiar with robots being used for disarming bombs (see photo 2) and I can see the same type being used for fires.

Photo 2-Bomb Robot

A small wheeled robot with cameras mounted on the device and connected to a hose that can be directed at the fire with some type of joy stick control is likely. The potential to telescope up to reach the fire directly to cover high piled racking would complete the concept. Or, use the AS/RS system, connect a hose to it and with the camera we can reach the source of the fire and apply an extinguishing agent directed at the fire.

Although I have written about robots fighting the fires, the field is changing in other ways too. Drones are being used to review the fire scene and collect information for firefighting use.

But perhaps the biggest indicator of the firefighting robots can be found in looking at Playskool (the toy company) and recognizing that they have tied the fire station into Optimus Prime, who commands the “RESCUE BOTS” to respond to the fire.

It all ties together—remember the concept of fire protection prior to the introduction of the ESFR sprinkler. This was discussed in my first blog. The fire tests in the 1970’s spoke of the need for control of the fire, not extinguishment. Control is defined in NFPA 13 as holding the fire in check through the extinguishing system until the initial commodities are consumed or until the fire is extinguished by the extinguishing system or manual aid. The concept of firefighting robots allows for the manual aid without placing firefighters lives in jeopardy. It is only a matter of time.

As always, I welcome your comments:

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