Firefighting Robot Snake Flies on Jets of Water

Using steerable jets of water like rockets, this robot snake can fly into burning buildings to extinguish fires

2 min read
Using steerable jets of water like rockets, this robot snake can fly into burning buildings to extinguish fires
Image: Tohoku University/National Institute of Technology

Fires have an unfortunate habit of happening in places that aren’t necessarily easy to reach. Whether the source of the fire is somewhere deep within a building, or up more than a floor or two, or both, firefighters have few good options for tackling them. They can either pour water into windows (which doesn’t always work that well), or they can try and get into the building, which seems like it’s probably super dangerous.

At the International Conference on Robotics and Automation last month, researchers from Tohoku University and National Institute of Technology, Hachinohe College, in Japan, presented a new kind of snakelike robot with the body of a fire hose. Like other snake robots, this one has the potential to be able to wiggle its way into windows or other gaps in a structure, with the benefit of carrying and directing water as it goes. What’s so cool about this particular design, though, is how it powers itself: By firing high pressure jets of water downward like rocket engines, it can lift itself off the ground and fly.

What’s happening here might be complex to implement in practice, but in principle, it’s not too complicated: There are sets of steerable nozzle modules distributed along the length of the hose. These modules siphon water out of the high pressure stream inside of the hose, and spray it downward. As the water exits downward at high velocity, it pushes the hose upward, and with enough of these modules squirting out high pressure water, the entire hose can be lifted into the air. Just like a rocket, it’s not dependent on ground proximity to work, so as long as you keep on giving it more hose and water at a high enough pressure, it’ll go as high as you want.

Firefighting snake robot Image: Tohoku University/National Institute of Technology

Since the nozzles are steerable, each module can direct itself independently, letting the hose weave itself through small gaps deep into a structure in order to find the source of a fire. And the “head” module comes with a few extra degrees of freedom to allow the water stream to be directed more precisely. And of course, while the head nozzle is fighting the source of the fire, a by-product of the body of the hose keeping itself airborne is that it’s drenching everything that it’s passing over, while also keeping itself cool.

The 2-meter-long prototype in the video above is intended to be a single segment in a robot that can be extended to an arbitrary length by just adding on more segments. A gas engine powered a compressor that provided water at 0.7 MPa. It worked reasonably well, as prototypes go, but it’s really more of a proof of concept in hardware than anything else, and obviously there’s a lot to do before a system like this could be real-world useful. The researchers readily admit that their current control algorithms are “not sophisticated,” and that they’ll need to put some work into making it more stable, more controllable, and able to handle more modules. They’re actively working on it, though, and we’re looking forward to this tech being adapted to garden hoses as well.

“Aerial Hose Type Robot by Water-Jet for Fire Fighting,” by Hisato Ando, Yuichi Ambe, Akihiro Ishii, Masashi Konyo, Kenjiro Tadakuma, Shigenao Maruyama, and Satoshi Tadokoro from Tohoku University and National Institute of Technology, Hachinohe College, Japan, was presented at ICRA 2018 in Brisbane, Australia.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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