Scientists from Imperial College London and Empa have successfully created a drone capable of withstanding high temperatures to enter burning buildings and assess fire hazards. Named FireDrone, this prototype drone could be deployed into burning structures or woodland areas to gather crucial first-hand data from danger zones. The information collected by the drone would then be transmitted to first responders, enabling them to make informed decisions during emergency situations.
The FireDrone is constructed using a novel thermal aerogel insulation material and incorporates an inbuilt cooling system to endure temperatures of up to 200°C for ten minutes. While currently in the prototype stage, the researchers envision that FireDrone could eventually be used to scout fires and identify potential hazards, thereby bolstering firefighting efforts.
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, explained the significance of this development:
"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."
Taking inspiration from animals that thrive in extreme temperatures, such as penguins, arctic foxes, and spittlebugs, the researchers aimed to create a drone capable of operating in close proximity to fires. Existing firefighting drones are limited in their ability to approach fires closely due to the risk of frame melting and electronic failure.
To construct FireDrone, the team designed a protective structural shell using lightweight, thermally super-insulating materials like polyimide aerogel and glass fibers. This shell was coated with super-reflecting aluminum to deflect heat. The use of super-insulation prevents materials from shrinking or pore structures from degrading after exposure to high temperatures.
Within the protective exoskeleton, temperature-sensitive components were placed, including regular and infrared cameras, CO2 sensors, video transmitters, flight controllers, batteries, and radio receivers. The researchers also developed a cooling system utilizing the release and evaporation of gas from the CO2 sensors to regulate temperatures.
The drone underwent rigorous testing in temperature-controlled chambers and was flown near flames at a firefighter training center. The researchers aim to further refine and equip the drone with additional sensors, ultimately enabling its deployment in real-life firefighting missions to potentially save lives.
FireDrone exhibits versatility and can also be employed in extreme cold environments, such as polar regions and glaciers. The team conducted tests in a glacier tunnel in Switzerland to observe the drone's performance under very low temperatures.
While FireDrone is currently a prototype, the researchers view it as a significant step toward the development of other drones capable of withstanding extreme temperatures. They are now in the process of validating the technology with key industrial stakeholders and partners.
Professor Kovac emphasized the potential of this innovation, stating,
"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. Deploying robots in extreme environments provides great benefits in reducing risks to human lives, and what better inspiration than animals that have evolved their own ways of adapting to these extremes and keeping cool in heat."