The heat-resistant drone can cover and map burning buildings and wildfires | Imperial News

Hands fiddling with the wired inside of the drone, with a layer of insulating material on the outside

Imperial College London and Empa researchers have developed a drone that can withstand temperatures high enough to enter burning buildings.

The prototype drone, called FireDrone, can be sent into burning buildings or woods to assess hazards and provide valuable first-hand data from danger zones. The data will be sent to first responders to help inform their emergency response.

The FireDrone can be dispatched ahead of time to gather vital information so that responders can prepare accordingly to keep themselves safe and potentially save more lives. Professor Mirko Kovac

The drone is made of a new thermal airgel insulation material and contains an inbuilt cooling system to help it withstand temperatures of up to 200°C for ten minutes. Currently in the prototype stage, researchers believe the FireDrone could eventually be used to cover fires for people and additional hazards to boost firefighting.

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, said: “Until they enter the danger zone, firefighters cannot be sure what or who what they will find, and what challenges they will face.

The FireDrone can be sent out ahead of time to gather important information – spotting trapped people, building layouts, unexpected hazards – so that responders can prepare accordingly to keep themselves safe and potentially save more life.”

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Animal-inspired trailblazers

Drones are already being used remotely in firefighting to capture aerial footage, raise fire hoses to skyscrapers, or drop fire retardant in remote areas to slow the spread of wildfires. However, current drones built for firefighting cannot fly any closer lest their frames melt and their electronics fail.

Based on interviews with firefighters, researchers know that drones that can be closer can help prepare first responders for entering burning buildings or woods. Drones equipped with cameras and carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors, for example, can provide valuable information about the layout and composition of fires.

They looked to animals that live in extreme temperatures like penguins, arctic foxes, and spittlebugs, for inspiration. All of them have appropriate layers of fat, fur, or produce their own layers of thermoregulating material that allow them to thrive in extreme conditions.

Hands fiddling with the wired inside of the drone, with a layer of insulating material on the outside
Inside the drone, the airgel layer is shown. Credit: Empa

To build the drone, they created a protective structural shell made of lightweight, thermally super-insulating materials such as polyimide aerogel, and glass fibers. They coated it with super-reflective aluminum to reflect heat. Super-insulating prevents materials from shrinking and pore structures from breaking down after exposure to high temperatures.

Inside the protective exoskeleton, they placed temperature-sensitive components, such as regular and infrared cameras, CO2 sensors, video transmitters, flight controllers, batteries, and radio receivers. They also used the emission and evaporation of gas from the CO2 sensors to build a cooling system to keep the temperature down.

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Temperature extremes

They tested the drone in temperature-controlled rooms and flew it near fires at a firefighter training center. They hope that their further work to miniaturise and add more sensors to the drone could lead to its deployment in real-life firefighting missions and help save lives.

The FireDrone can also be used in extreme cold environments, in polar regions and on glaciers. The team also tested the robot in a glacier tunnel in Switzerland to study how the system behaves in extremely cold temperatures.

A drone in an artificial tunnel inside a glacier
FireDrone tested on a glacier

Although the FireDrone is in the prototype stage, the researchers say it is a step forward for developing other drones that can withstand extreme temperatures and the team is now proving the technology to key industrial stakeholders and partner

Professor Kovac said: “The use of drones is often limited by environmental factors such as temperature. We present a way to overcome this and are convinced that our findings will help to unleash the future power of drones for in extreme environments.

The deployment of robots in extreme environments provides great benefits in reducing risks to human life, and who better to look than animals that have evolved their own ways of adapt to these extremes using inspiration from how animals stay cool in the heat.

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‘FireDrone: Multi-environment thermally-agnostic aerial robot’, by David Häusermann et al. was published in Advanced Intelligent Systems.

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