Dubbed FireDrone, the prototype aircraft could be sent into infernos to assess hazards and provide first-hand data from danger zones. The data would then be sent to first responders to help inform their response.
The drone is made of a new thermal aerogel insulation material and houses an inbuilt cooling system to help it withstand temperatures of up to 200°C for ten minutes.
In a statement, principal investigator Professor Mirko Kovac, director of the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College London and head of the Laboratory of Sustainability Robotics at Empa, said: “Until they enter the danger zone, firefighters can’t be certain of what or who they’ll find, and what challenges they’ll encounter.
“FireDrone could be sent in ahead to gather crucial information – noting trapped people, building layouts, unexpected hazards – so that responders can prepare accordingly to keep themselves safe and potentially save more lives."
Drones are already used in firefighting to take aerial footage, hoist fire hoses up skyscrapers, or drop fire retardant. Despite these advantages, they are unable to fly much closer in case their frames melt and their electronics fail.
Based on interviews with firefighters, the researchers knew drones that could get much closer could help to prepare first responders for entering burning buildings or woodland; drones equipped with cameras and carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors could provide information about the layout and composition of fires.
According to Imperial College, they looked to animals that live in extreme temperatures like the penguin, arctic fox, and spittlebug, for inspiration. All these have appropriate layers of fat, fur, or produce their own layers of thermoregulating material that allow them to thrive in extreme conditions.
To build the drone, they created a protective structural shell made of lightweight, thermally super-insulating materials like polyimide aerogel, and glass fibres. They coated this with super-reflecting aluminium to reflect heat. The super-insulation prevents the materials from shrinking and pore structures from degrading after exposure to high temperatures.
Temperature-sensitive components, such as regular and infrared cameras, CO2 sensors, video transmitters, flight controllers, batteries, and radio receivers, were placed within the protective exoskeleton. They also used the release and evaporation of gas from the CO2 sensors to build a cooling system to keep temperatures down.
They tested the drone in temperature-controlled chambers and flew it close to flames at a firefighter training centre. They hope that their further work to miniaturise and add more sensors to the drone might lead to its deployment in real-life firefighting missions.
FireDrone can also be used in extreme cold environments. To this end, the team tested the robot in a glacier tunnel in Switzerland to study how the system behaves in very cold temperatures. The team is now validating the technology with industrial stakeholders and partners.
Professor Kovac said: “The application of drones is often limited by environmental factors like temperature. We demonstrate a way to overcome this and are convinced our findings will help to unleash the future power of drones for extreme environments.”
The prototype drone is detailed in Advanced Intelligent Systems.