I was talking to an RAAF pilot recently about how technology with drones has changed the role of a pilot, and he explained that they are moving towards pilots operating their aircraft with a joystick in a bunker thousands of kilometres from the frontline. Everything from bombing to reconnaissance and dog fights can be done remotely and often using artificial intelligence making decisions independently of the operator (pilot). When you think about it, drones in this case have become flying robots.
I started wondering about the role of a firefighter in the future and what this new technology will mean to them. In many editions of this magazine we have published articles about new technology to assist firefighters. In this edition is an article on exoskeletons for firefighters, a combination of firefighter and robot, making the firefighter super human, able to lift heavy loads and climb to the top of high buildings carrying a full load of hose and breathing apparatus without raising a sweat.
This is only the beginning of the robot era for firefighters. As little as two years ago there would have been only a concept display for firefighters to look at at a fire conference, now it’s becoming one of the fastest growing displays of working fire applications for firefighters.
At a recent exhibition in China I saw a robot that can enter dangerous zones and drag out patients and although this was designed for radiation leaks it has many applications in the fire service.
Robots with hose lines were everywhere, taking jets into tunnels, warehouses and even upstairs. Robots with a fully charged line can open the door on the fire floor and directly attack the fire with none of the safety issues a firefighter would confront. Even with the technology we have at our disposal already we are not thinking of innovative ways to use it. If you think about it, why do we put firefighters into the cage of a hydraulic platform when a remote-controlled monitor and a camera will see where to apply water, far more safely? The person controlling the monitor could even be back at the fire station.
Robots are now being equipped with the Artificial Intelligence which allows independent thinking such as avoidance of hazards and the choice of the most effective way to place a water jet on a fire.
If we look at the basic tasks a firefighter undertakes, there is much that robots can do more safely and more efficiently, if not now but in the very near future:
- Self-driving trucks, which already exist, will take crews to the fire in the most effective and efficient way, the days of driving Code One maybe over.
- As I mentioned above, running hose lines and getting to the seat of a fire, no more need to surround and drown.
- Carrying heavy equipment.
- Search and rescue, robots now can hear and smell, see in different wavelengths (Infrared and ultraviolet) and enter dangerous areas where you would not send a person.
In my mind I have gone through all the things a firefighter does and can see already existing robotics applications that can do or will shortly do what a firefighter does now.
If you think of robots in the traditional way, in humanoid shape, you miss the point. These smart machines will come in all shapes and sizes and have built in Artificial Intelligence, a self-driving car is a robot.
This will not stop on the fireground, but robots will be acting independently to suppress fires before firefighters get a call. Inbuilt smart suppression systems will attack the fire in its incipient phase and I am not talking about the traditional sprinkler or gas suppression system. We already have drone robots that can deliver an AED to a heart attack victim, others that deliver life vests to people drowning and pizza home delivery. I have seen demonstrations of similar applications for first attack solutions in firefighting such as delivering a dry powder bomb to a small room fire, this was backed up by Artificial Intelligence that could assess the situation and only deliver if it assessed the fire was growing, it could sense a person in the room and be turned off by voice command if required.
Every time you read in one of our magazines a story about robotics think of the impact that it will have on you as a firefighter. It is not an issue that will go away and the speed it is happening is exponential. The survivors will be those that grasp this technology and run with it, as my colleague the RAAF pilot is. Don’t be left behind because it will happen in this generation.
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