AUSTIN (KXAN) — It’s the most dangerous part of being a firefighter: entering a burning structure blind to look for victims. What if a robot could go in first?

As these first responders search for people who might be inside the flames, dangers like toxic gases pose life-threatening hazards. Additionally, burning buildings may be unstable and could collapse on those inside at any moment.

After hearing about a local firefighter’s death, 17-year-old Siddharth Thakur, a University of Texas engineering student, invented what he hopes to be a solution. It’s called the Firebot: a fire-resistant, radio-enhanced intelligence-gathering robot. 

He brought his initial idea of a firefighting robot to his advisor Roland Fields, a supervisor at the the Fabrication and Innovation lab at Houston Community College. Fields says he thought it was a novel idea.

“It was one of those obvious things that I haven’t seen anybody else do,” Fields said. “You see fire cannons or water hoses, but nobody has come up with the idea of actually using a bot inside the fire scene, which is really as necessary as the radios they carry. It is something that should already be out there.”

Thakur began reaching out to local fire departments where he learned the situations firefighters go through when they’re searching for victims.

“I was especially shocked to learn about their lack of technology. Firefighters are going into these burning buildings with nothing other than a simple suit to protect them from the flames,” Thakur said. “After interviewing firefighters across the nation, I learned that this issue was not just local but systemic.” 

Firefighters across the country helped Thakur learn the main problems crews face. One of the biggest challenges is debris.

“These burning buildings are chaotic and there are tons of rubble on the floor. This leads to the creation of an obstacle-fighting feature on the robot,” Thakur said.

The Firebot has two tracks which can rotate up and down that allow it to climb obstacles — and even stairs — so it can search multiple floors in any situation. 

The presences of harmful chemicals is another concern and contributing factor to deaths of firefighters each year. The Firebot is equipped with gas and chemical sensors, allowing it to detect and report back any hazardous fumes.

The most important life-saving feature of the Firebot, however, is its ability to locate both conscious and unconscious victims and help them accordingly. 

“Sixty percent of the time, victims inside burning buildings are unconscious due to smoke inhalation,” Thakur explained. “If the victim is unconscious, Firebot uses a GPS location, as well as a siren, to alert the firefighters of its exact location.”

If the victim is conscious, Firebot will use a two-way speaker so firefighters can communicate the nearest safe exit. If the situation is too unsafe for them to leave on their own, firefighters also have the ability to tell them “please stay put. Firefighters are coming to assist you.”

How is Firebot different from other fire-fighting robots in the market? 

Currently, the main novel portion of the Firebot is that it’s temperature resistant. No robot on the market features high-temperature resistance. Most firefighting robots are adapted police robots designed to carry large hoses safely outside the burning building and point it at the fire.

Firebot is the first bot that can be sent into a burning building. 

Firebot can also withstand 12 minutes in 1,000-degree Fahrenheit heat — that’s six times longer than a firefighter can at the same temperature. It can also move twice as fast as a firefighter can in their heavy, cumbersome personal equipment. 

Who controls Firebot? 

The bot is a remotely-controlled vehicle. In a typical fire situation, a firefighter would remove Firebot from the firetruck and place it on the ground safely outside the burning building. They then would use a laptop and a joystick to control the robot remotely. They can navigate the robot through the building to identify any victims.

“It can search a building far more efficiently than a firefighter currently can,” Thakur said. “This frees up personnel so firefighters can focus on reducing the fire itself, rather than wasting time locating victims.” 

People’s Choice Award winner

Once Thakur developed the third version of Firebot, he entered it into the Collegiate Inventors Competition, a nationwide promotion of collegiate-level research innovation.

Siddharth Thakur with Firebot (Courtesy Siddharth Thakur)

“I thought, ‘Why not enter it into this competition and see if I can get the funding to really accelerate its development,'” he said.

While he didn’t win the competition, he did win the People’s Choice Award for the invention.

“This was astonishing to me because it shows that people believe in the promise of my innovation and see it’s use in many different applications,” he said.

He plans to use his $2,000 prize money to fund the next version of the Firebot with higher-grade materials, and hopes to expand his team along the way. 

Firebot in action 

Thakur said there is about a 70/30 split when it comes to fire stations adapting to new technology. Seventy percent of fire departments, such as the Austin Fire Department, have previously used drones that carry hoses or fly over fires to assess the situation, so they are open to incorporating new technology into their work. 

The other 30%, he says, are more conservative and traditional and it will take more time as well as testing of the Firebot to convince them that it truly can save lives and make their jobs safer. 

“It is a balancing act when it comes to figuring out what resources you need to be operating effectively and efficiently,” said AFD Assistant Fire Chief Richard Davis. “I think robotics is the wave of the future, but in some cases individuals feel that robotics would replace some firefighters, but I say otherwise.”

Thakur has been working with the Austin Fire Department and was invited to test Firebot under real-life simulations during its cadet training program. 

By early 2022, Thakur aims to have the next version of the robot developed and deployed to regional fire departments across Texas. This will bring valuable data as they test the robot as well as spread knowledge and awareness about the importance of making this dangerous job safer. 

On-Duty Firefighter Fatalities 2019 vs. 2020

In 2019, a total of 48 on-duty firefighter fatalities were reported nationwide. The number increased to 140 in 2020.

It’s important to note that 2020 fatality numbers are impacted by COVID-19 exposures, of which 78 deaths were reported.

KEY FINDINGS: Firefighters were more likely to be injured at fire ground operation than at other types of duties. In 2020, 20 fire ground deaths were reported, including 10 deaths on wildland fires, nine at structure fires, and one at an illegal outside burn.

The full 2019 report can be found here. The preliminary 2020 report can be found here.