KU Affairs

Using Drones to Fight High Rise Building Fires Presents a Real Challenge in the Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge 2020

February 5, 2020

Fires raged around the world in 2019.

In Australia, wildfires started in December continue to consume land and devastate the environment. In April, a fire broke out beneath the roof of the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, causing extensive damage to one of France’s most iconic structures. Closer to home, a fire in a Fujairah restaurant saw 100 people needing evacuation, and just one day later, an apartment fire in December led to 150 families fleeing a high rise building. Fujairah Civil Defence urged building owners to install fire equipment and follow fire protection regulations, but accidents can still happen.

On 14 June 2017, a fire broke out in the 24-storey Grenfell Tower block of flats in West London, United Kingdom. It was the deadliest structural fire in the UK since 1988 and the worst UK residential fire since the Second World War. It burned for about 60 hours before it was finally extinguished. In that time, 72 people lost their lives. One of the major obstacles to the firefighting effort was that the tower’s only stairwell filled with smoke within an hour of the fire breaking out. Residents were unable to escape unaided and firefighters were hindered by the near-zero visibility.

Because of the Great Fire of London, UK building codes have historically been overly focused on containing horizontal fire spread between buildings, as opposed to vertical fire spread in high-rise buildings. But as population densities increase in cities globally, housing everybody requires construction to continue upwards, and incidents such as at Grenfell or recently in Fujairah highlight the need to develop effective measures to tackle high-rise building fires.

Fire-fighting in high-rise buildings with traditional human means happens from the inside. Over a certain height, the fire can’t be reached with ladders, meaning firefighters need to enter the building and climb up to it. Buildings in the UAE regularly scrape the sky at over 50 stories; Marina 101 in Dubai has 101 floors, while the Burj Khalifa tops all with more than 160 floors. In fact, the UAE is ranked 4th globally for its number of skyscrapers.

Innovators and authorities are beginning to look at drone and robotic intervention to lift firefighting equipment to burning high-rises, locate fire flashpoints and people trapped inside, and even tackle the blaze. The Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge 2020 sees teams attempt the latter. Most building fires start small and spread rapidly. If onsite firefighting unmanned robots can respond to fires early, then potential disasters can be mitigated.

All the MBZIRC 2020 challenges were developed to push the technological and application boundaries in robotics, focusing on fast, autonomous navigation in complex environments to complete a task. Challenge 3 offers the most complex environment as a team of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) will collaborate to autonomously extinguish a series of simulated fires in an urban high-rise building firefighting scenario. The teams must handle a dynamic environment, with reduced visibility from the smoke and wind conditions likely in high-rise building fires, and minimal prior knowledge of the building layout. Not only is the scenario a tricky one, teams have a maximum of 20 minutes to complete the task.

Teams will be scored based on the number of tasks completed, precisely how the teams complete the task, and the time taken.

Consider the time and effort it would require for firefighters to reach the 100th floor and how much heavy equipment they would need to carry with them. The crew that arrives on scene first needs to confirm the location of the fire, which is difficult to do with many floors to check—but an unmanned aerial vehicle could determine this with greater accuracy and speed, eliminating the need to send humans in first. They could then monitor the situation as firefighters tackle the blaze and keep crews continuously and accurately updated as to their efforts.

But Challenge 3 at MBZIRC 2020 goes further than merely identifying a fire: the teams must also extinguish them. The UAVs and UGV must therefore be strong enough to carry extinguishing materials to great heights and fast enough to be effective responders. Although a single drone may have a relatively modest payload of several tens of liters of water, using multiple drones simultaneously would increase their efficacy, hence the team of UAVs and UGV. During the challenge, fires may be extinguished in one of two ways: using simulated fire extinguishers (such as pressurized water containers with marks based on volume of water ejected at the target) or using fire extinguisher covers.

The results from Challenge 3 have wider implications than just building fires, as beneficial as that would be for the UAE. The technology could be used in other emergency situations, including wildfires such as those seen in Australia and the United States. Video smoke detection and heat mapping can cover a large area with drone use, while robotic intervention prevents injury or harm coming to firefighters.

Ultimately, these results will help keep emergency services safe and potentially save lives globally.

Jade Sterling
News and Features Writer
4 February 2020