RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS: Designing a Firefighting Robot

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Harry T. Roman

In this challenge, students will learn about mobile robots and attempt to design a firefighting robot. This activity should demonstrate the complexity and inter-disciplinary nature of this technology. 

First, the students will need to understand how mobile robots differ from traditional industrial robots that are used in factories and assembly lines, so a little research is in order as the students:

  • Discover the basic sub-systems of a mobile robot:
    • Propulsion system
    • Communications interface (radio control or tether)
    • Sensors on board
    • Manipulators and end-effectors
  • How mobile robots developed, and their lineage
  • The difference between mobile robots and industrial robots
  • The design concerns with mobile robots
  • How mobile robots are communicated with
  • What industries currently use mobile robots and what are the applications?
  • How may mobile robots be used tomorrow?

Have the students take a look at the impacts that robots could have on human work forces that might be displaced. In places where mobile robots have been used, have there been problems with human workers being displaced? What kinds of training did those workers receive in how to use the robots? Also evaluate the types of skills necessary to design mobile robots, and the different disciplines that must be integrated.

Armed with this basic knowledge about the mobile robot world, your students are now ready to begin thinking about how their firefighting robot will be designed and deployed.

The Challenge
The most important aspect of this challenge is to understand the problem, and what conditions the mobile robot must face and withstand; and that means we must start by listing the key aspects of this design. First we will start with rather obvious concerns:

  • What kinds of fires will be fought?
  • How far into the fire will the robot go?
    • Must it be totally fireproof?
    • Will it stay around the perimeter of the fire?
  • Must it be waterproof?
  • Its delicate electronics should be able to withstand high temperatures
  • Key circuitry on-board the robot should be redundant
  • The robot must be able to withstand the discharge of its fire hose without losing its balance
  • How much hose will it be necessary to drag behind it?
  • If the robot becomes disabled, it must be easily retrieved.

Students are free to determine what they want their robot to be able to do, but must understand that those choices drive the design. Are there firefighting robots now in service that might provide some design clues and insights?

Expand the question asking to prompt even more creativity and speculation about how the robot might be used:

  • How would the robot be brought to the fire site?
  • How would it be cleaned after a fire?
  • What temperatures is the robot likely to experience?
  • What materials would it be made of?
  • How would the operator communicate with the robot?
  • How would the robot see through the fire?
  • Are there special concerns if robots have to deal with:
    • hazardous substance fires
    • corrosive spills and ensuing fires
    • handling explosive materials

What do you think firemen would think of a mobile robot they could deploy at a serious fire site? As probable future users of a mobile firefighting robot, might they have some important concerns that should be taken into account? Why not invite some local firemen to discuss how they fight fires, and how a mobile robot might be useful to them. Their experience would be most valuable in helping students understand how to deploy the robot. They could also provide information about the type of training firefighters would need to become proficient with maintaining, deploying, and using the robot.

Are there other firefighting situations where mobile robots could be used, outside of traditional structure fires? Could these robots find application in refineries, the military, aboard aircraft carriers and other vessels, in coal mines, oil storage depots, oil rigs, or other places? Have there been previous attempts or past applications?


Now the students should make an attempt to design their robots. This kind of challenge lends itself well to team efforts where once the central design parameters are decided upon, students may take different aspects of the project and design their portion—all of which will be integrated together later by the team.

Encourage lots of pictures and diagrams explaining how the robot will be designed and operated. Cut-away pictures of the robot in action and its various anatomical structures should be prominently displayed. The use of computer graphics design software is certainly encouraged. A formal design report should be compiled by each team.

Students should attempt to develop cost information about building the robots. And certainly, the design teams can develop marketing information about their new products. In fact, the robot design teams each should give oral presentations about their robots, its special features and selling points.

This challenge should be loads of fun. Robots are a wonderful venue in which to team inter-disciplinary and multi-dimensional thinking and critical analysis. Let the creativity and futuristic thinking soar. 


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