In a development welcomed by firefighters, a group of European researchers has developed a robot that can enter blazing buildings to map the terrain and gauge the risk of explosions.
The "SmokeBot", still in development, is designed to go where it is unsafe for humans, equipped with gas sensors, radar, a laser scanner and a thermal camera, relaying data in real time back to an operative.
"At present, there is no robot with this combination of features," said computer science professor Achim Lilienthal, of Sweden’s Ã–rebro University, who is leading the project.
As well as "seeing" without using the visible light spectrum, the bot can analyse the air around it and give a percentage breakdown of the gases present to assess the risk of explosion.
Data collected by the bot are sent to a human operator over an internet connection. Should the robot lose its connection, it will automatically make its way back to the last location at which it could access the internet.
Sylvia Pratzler-Wanczura, a fire and rescue researcher with the Dortmund fire department, said the robot offered a "considerable advantage" in situations where it was too risky to send in rescue personnel or when rescuers had to search through large areas, as is the case with forest fires.
However, she added that its data processing capacity needed to be increased. "At this time, it takes about 15-30 minutes for the robot to collect data on the accident location, which means that it cannot yet be used in the most urgent of rescue efforts."
The project to develop the robot has received €3.5m in EU funds and is now in its fourth year.
Other partners in the research besides are the Leibniz University of Hannover, The University of Warwick, the Fraunhofer Institute for High Frequency Physics and Radar Techniques in Wachtberg, the Taurob manufacturing company, which is based in Vienna, and the Fire Department of Dortmund.
Image: Professor Lilienthal and the latest prototype of the SmokeBot (Ã–rebro University)