Flame-resistant drone could save lives by flying into fires
Firefighters have a dangerous job at the best of times, but especially so when they're first entering burning buildings. A new flame-resistant drone could help, by scouting structures to let firefighters know what they'll be up against.
Appropriately named the FireDrone, the experimental quadcopter is being developed by scientists from Imperial College London and Switzerland's Empa research institute. Unlike conventional drones, it's able to withstand temperatures of up to 200 ºC (392 ºF) for as much as 10 minutes at a time.
The aircraft's heat resistance is due mainly to an insulating layer of aerogel, which forms a shell surrounding its electronics.
Created specifically for the project, the porous gel consists mainly of air pockets within a matrix of polyimide plastic, silica, and glass fibers – the latter provide structural reinforcement. An aluminum outer skin additionally helps reflect heat away from the drone.
Along with a battery, flight controller, video transmitter and radio receiver, the FireDrone's electronic components also include sensors such as an optical camera, infrared camera, and CO2 sensor.
The idea is that when initially entering a burning building on its own, the drone will relay real-time data such as the distribution of fire sources, the location of hazards to be avoided, and the whereabouts of trapped people. And as an added bonus, a cooling effect is produced within the drone as gas evaporates from its CO2 sensor.
The FireDrone has already been successfully tested in a firefighter training center, with more trials planned for the future. Once commercialized, the aircraft could conceivably also be used to assess forest fires or even to scout very cold environments, thanks to its insulating aerogel.
"The application of drones is often limited by environmental factors like temperature," said the lead scientist, Prof. Mirko Kovac. "We demonstrate a way to overcome this and are convinced our findings will help to unleash the future power of drones for extreme environments."
A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Advanced Intelligent Systems. The FireDrone can be seen in action, in the video below.