High Tech Firefighting

With California’s catastrophic wildfires continuing to ravage Mendocino as we speak, destroying residences and expanding in acres daily, the California wildfires happening right now is considered the largest in state history.

Currently, we have over 14,000 firefighters (with inmates also helping) on the front lines relentlessly battling, and exhaustingly trying to contain the wildfires across the State. One can’t help to wonder – Will it reach San Francisco? And can tech have a role in fighting wildfires?


Below are some high tech solutions proposed, or are already being applied, to fight fires:

  1. NASA’s High-Tech Heat Shields

    NASA has been using its high-tech heat shields to protect firefighters for about 5 summers now. The same stuff that protects spacecraft returning to Earth now protects men and women battling a blaze in the wilderness.

    NASA shelters can withstand heat up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit temperatures. They are light-weight weighing at around 4 lbs, thin fabric that is embedded with pepper-like bits of graphite that when exposed to heat, makes the fiberglass insulation expand — so the material only gets bigger when exposed to scorching temperatures.

    NASA’s heat shields have protected astronauts and spacecraft from deadly heat for decades, and they’re equally effective at shielding firefighters, although it can’t really withstand long periods of direct contact with flames (not much can), it is a step in the right direction.

  2. The proposed hi-tech exoskeleton

    Melbourned designer, Ken Chen, designed a hi-tech exoskeleton that can give firefighters ‘superhuman’ abilities as the suit can carry loads up to 200 lbs (91kg). Chen designed the ‘AFA Powered Exoskeleton’ to supplement muscle performance and help firefighters manage all the extra weight without impeding freedom of movement. The AFA concept is based on existing military and industrial exoskeleton systems. It transfers its weight and load directly to the ground, so firefighters don’t bear the weight including carrying incapacitated people who have suffered from smoke inhalation. The exoskeleton is strapped over the firefighters’ clothing and attachments such as a high pressure hose can be placed on arms, and would allow firefighters to easily rescue and carry people out of fires, or take heavy equipment up flights of stairs inside a burning building. It can also be fitted with a range of gadgets for different mission, including a high pressure water hose that simply clips onto the arm. The exo-suit has two actuator & sensor units at back and 10 actuator units in each joint, with a control computer build in the main frame and held at the waist.The advanced firefighting suit won the A’ Design Award & Competition for futuristic innovators. The award is patroned by the Como Cultural Department, and The Bureau of European Design Associations.

  3. Drones

    What if the power and mobility of drones could be unleashed to fight fires? Those drones are capturing hours of videos, but what is being done with the video and images? Tracking the status of vegetation (the fuel) and developing conditions is difficult across vast expanses of undeveloped, often inaccessible land. Drones offer tremendous opportunity from the hours of videos and imagery they capture, enabling authorities to spot conditions ripe for wildfires. 

     More accurate information about conditions on the ground leads to better situational awareness for county fire departments, and will help improve the modeling which facilitates the identification of risk early enough to take action. Getting a complete aerial picture cost-effectively and without endangering humans could increase the efficacy of preemptive burning, reducing the impact to lives and property. Plus, the images and videos captured by drones are used by AI (artificial intelligence) to spot patterns and conditions from images of vegetation that commonly lead to a fire breaking out or spreading rapidly.
  4. Sensors

    The WIFIRE system was developed by researchers at UC San Diego in collaboration with a team from the University of Maryland, and funded by a $2.6 million ongoing grant from the National Science Foundation. It is a scalable ‘end-to-end cyber infrastructure system’ designed to monitor forest conditions, predict when and where a wildfire is most likely to occur, and and mitigate the damage they cause by alerting officials within seconds of their outbreak.

    Raymond de Callafon, Director of the System Identification and Control Laboratory at UC San Diego, said in a press statement:

“Real-time measurements on the areal location of a wildfire and current wind speeds can be combined with topography information to estimate and update information on fuel content and the rate of spread (ROS) of the wildfire…. Monitoring and predicting the ROS is possible by combining signal processing, parameter estimation, and dynamic wildfire models to update the state of the wildfire in real-time.”

5. ‘Fire Hydrant’ for Helicopers

1,700-gallon metal water tanks are easily accessed by helicopters to tap into an area’s municipal water system, thereby saving valuable minutes during firefighting operations instead of flying over to a distant reservoir or other water source. The Orange County Fire Authority and Anaheim Fire & Rescue has been testing these ‘fire hydrants for helicopters,’ which uses robot-controlled valves and are remotely-activated.

A OCFA helicopter can hover over a specialized tank and siphon nearly 2,000 gallons of water within 45 seconds. The helicopter pilot uses a remote-control system to active the valve and fill the water tank, eliminating the need for a firefighting ground crew to turn on the valve. The tank is empty when not in use. If the trial period is a success, the Los Angeles County Fire plans to buy several tank systems, officials said. The tanks can be placed above or below ground.

Firefighter technology has been as dynamic as the fires it was developed to put out. Technology continues to evolve as we speak, drawing in materials, and research and understanding from a variety of scientific, design, and engineering fields to accomplish one mission – to figure out more effective solutions to fight fires and save lives and communities quicker.

Source: Tech CrunchMashable, Daily Mail UK, Gizmodo, Mercury News, Fire Rescue 1

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