Firefighting beetle robots may help humans fight forest fires

By Ernest Gill, DPA,

Hamburg (Germany) : Compact robots that scuttle across the landscape like enormous armour-plated beetles may one day help humans fight deadly forest fires in remote areas, according to a team of German scientists.

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Looking for all the world like old-fashioned Volkswagen beetle cars – except with multiple legs where the wheels ought to be – a brigade of these robots could carry water or foam extinguishing agents to the most dangerous firefighting locations, places where humans would face certain peril.

The OLE robotic beetle (short for “Offroad Loescheinheit” which means “off-road extinguishing unit” in German) has been developed at the University of Magdeburg-Stendal in Germany.

The OLE would be autonomous and guided by GPS, infrared and heat sensors and could be equipped with tanks of water and powdered fire-extinguishing agents, says a report in Popular Science magazine.

According to the developers, such a robot would cost between $125,000-200,000. But a small army of 30 OLEs could survey a 7,000 sq. km area.

Only a concept now, OLE is a product of the industrial-design studio at the University of Magdeburg-Stendal, about an hour and a half west of Berlin, says the report.

A robot equipped with tanks of water and powdered fire-extinguishing agents, OLE would be autonomous and guided by GPS, intelligent feelers, and infrared and heat sensors.

Design Professor Ulrich Wohlgemuth, along with biologist and robot-systems manager Oliver Lange, students, and members of the design firm Transluszent, collaborated on the concept, inspired by the interlinking armour of the common pill bug, Armadillidium vulgare.

Even in areas where acrid smoke and heat would be daunting to humans, the armour-plated OLEs could swarm in to fight pernicious fires.

That armour is OLE’s fireproof suit. The six legs have a similar protective purpose.

“Walking can be nice, but it is generally useless for robots,” Lange points out. “Nature invented walking because it cannot invent the wheel from flesh and blood. In this case, though, if you have wheels, you always have contact with the forest,” he says.

“The concept behind OLE is that he’s digging, and he’s near heat. Legs don’t always have contact with heat.

“And from a roboticist’s perspective, six legs is the perfect number, providing stability and making it easy to calculate movement points,” Lange says.

The OLE is biologically inspired, like so many other robots, modelled after the pill millipede beetles with several body segments that make them capable of rolling into a ball.

Similarly, when the OLE detects danger such as too much heat, it can roll into a ball. Its shell then protects the delicate electronic innards from heat ranging to 1,300 degrees celsius.

When it is not balled up, its six legs can move it at around 10-20 km per hour, depending on environmental conditions.

Popular Science adds that a working OLE would be made from fire-resistant ceramic-fibre compounds that could withstand temperatures up to 1,850 degrees fahrenheit.

And in case pranksters wanted to steal one of them from the forest, a GPS beacon on board could be used to track it down.