By Dean Murray
A hero drone that can fly into fires and save lives is being developed.
Researchers from Imperial College London and Swiss research institute Empa are working on a heat-resistant drone that can analyze the source of danger at close range in the event of a building or forest fire.
This allows firefighters to optimize the strategy of a high-risk operation before entering the danger zone.
The researchers say that traditional drones flying close to fire can see the frame melting and electronics stop functioning.
David Häusermann, of Empa’s Sustainability Robotics lab, said: “To fly closer, the extreme heat generated by a fire is too great for conventional drones.
“More than aerial photos of the fire site from a safe distance are not possible with commercial drones.”
The researcher’s goal was to develop a drone that could withstand the heat and thus provide fast and accurate data from the center of the hot spot.
Thanks to its insulating ‘aerogel’ jacket, the so-called FireDrone can collect and forward data from the scene of a fire during a fire mission, even in extremely hot conditions.
EMPA said: “Where others rush out, they have to go in: Firefighters put themselves in dangerous situations during rescue operations – sometimes right in the midst of a sea of flames.
“Since temperatures in a burning building can reach lethal levels of around 1,000 degrees Celsius, it is essential to avoid any unnecessary risk. Flying robots could support such missions.”
Mirko Kovac, Head of Empa’s Sustainability Robotics Laboratory and the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial College London, said: “Before they go directly into the danger zone, the firefighters naturally don’t know what exactly awaits them and what difficulties they will encounter.”
Drones equipped with cameras and CO2 (carbon dioxide) sensors could provide important information about the distribution of fire sources, unexpected hazards or trapped people.
Drones are already being used to fight fires, take aerial photos, lift fire hoses onto skyscrapers, or drop extinguishing agents in remote areas, for example, to contain the spread of forest fires – but only at a safe distance from the source of the fire.
David Häusermann worked with firefighters to determine the requirements of a drone in a fire mission and set out to find a material that could protectively surround the heart of the drone – the motors, batteries, sensors and electronics.
He found what he was looking for with colleagues from Empa’s Building Energy Materials and Components lab.
The researchers, led by Shanyu Zhao and Wim Malfait, were able to synthesize an insulating material that can withstand high temperatures and thus make the drone more fire-resistant.
Researchers were inspired by nature, or more precisely by animals such as penguins, arctic foxes, and spittlebugs that live in extreme temperatures.
All these animals have corresponding layers of fat, fur, or produce their own protective layers of thermoregulating material that enable them to survive under extreme conditions.
The material in question is an aerogel, an ultralight material consisting almost entirely of air-filled pores enclosed in a hint of polymer substance.
In this case, the materials researchers chose an aerogel based on polyimide plastic.
Polyimide aerogels are also being researched by NASA, for example, for the insulation of space suits.
However, Shanyu Zhao did not rely on polyimide alone to synthesize the aerogel. The composite material consists of polyimide and silica and is also reinforced with glass fibers.
“Laboratory analyses have shown that this comparatively fire-resistant material is particularly well suited for use in drones,” says aerogel researcher Zhao.”
The researchers say the FireDrone prototype survived several test flights.
David Häusermann added: “Even after several flights, the electronics, thermal imaging camera and CO2 sensors of the FireDrone are undamaged and ready for further testing.”
The next step would now be to test the FireDrone in a fire, which, unlike the comparatively clean gas flame, shows a strong soot development.
Firefighting expert Stefan Keller is also impressed by the results: “If a drone makes the initial reconnaissance of the situation, we don’t have to send firefighters into the danger zone immediately.
“For us, this progress is enormously interesting.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Kyana Jeanin Rubinfeld and Jessi Rexroad Shull
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