Naval Firefighting Drones

While there is a great debate about the use of UAS for personal and law enforcement purposes, I hope one area most people can agree on is that they are well-suited for firefighting purposes.  I recently wrote about Indago, which was developed in the U.S. and which has been used successfully in Australia and the recent Drones for Good competition winner was Flyability’s Gimball, which could also be well-suited for firefighting work.

Carnegie Mellon has announced that they successfully tested a UAS as part of a Navy research program.  Carnegie Mellon is working through its Robotics Institute and a spin-off company called Sensible Machines. This is part of a Navy Research Lab sponsored program called Damage Control for the 21st Century, which has had some recent success.  Separately they reported that the The Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), a 140 pound non-aerial robot that is designed to fight fires, has been tested successfully.
Both were part of tests at the former USS SHADWELL, a former WWII landing craft, in Mobile, Alabama. The UAS is small by design – something anyone who has been on board a Navy ship can appreciate.  The UAS has an RGB-D depth camera and a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera to detect people potentially trapped and to monitor the fire itself.  The project had the UAS relay instructions to the SAFFiR, but I can envision it being used by human firefighters as well.  The ideas behind the Gimball could also be incorporated, although one has to take into account the ability of the material to withstand high heat.

I mentioned previously that I was part of the investigation into the fire onboard USS MIAMI.  I pulled the publicly released version of the report, which walks through a timeline of the events.  I’ll still to the relevant portions of the report as released so as to not release any sensitive information.  However, if you read starting around paragraph 140, you’ll see that it was difficult for the firefighters to find the fire and also to navigate through the dark, narrow, and smoke-filled passageways.  There was initial confusion as to the location of the fire since it was impossible to track it to its source.
USS MIAMI - May 23, 2012

USS MIAMI – Portsmouth Naval Shipyard – May 23, 2012

I was not involved in the firefighting itself on MIAMI, but by all accounts it was as if you were blind.  I recall my shipboard firefighting training, and being enclosed in what is essentially a small metal box makes the fire seem that more daunting.
Thankfully no one died or was seriously injured in that fire, but that has not always been the case.  The aircraft carrier USS FORRESTAL was consumed by a serious fire in 1967 while on station off of Vietnam in 1967.  Over 100 sailors were killed in that fire.  I met many dedicated firefighters during that investigation, but there is no doubt that firefighting, and particularly shipboard firefighting, is hazardous.  The use of UAS and other robots to fight fire, particularly shipboard fires, is a great use of research efforts.  Should another fire occur, they will hopefully be able to limit its extent and protect human life.

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