Robots on reins could be the ‘eyes’ of firefighters

Supplementary content information

photograph of a silhouetted man testing inside a smoke filled cave

Testing the reins in a smoke filled area

Sheffield Hallam University

Firefighters moving through smoke-filled buildings could save vital seconds and find it easier to identify objects and obstacles, thanks to revolutionary reins that enable robots to act like guide dogs.

The small mobile robot – equipped with tactile sensors – would lead the way, with the firefighter following a metre or so behind holding a rein. The robot would help the firefighter move swiftly in ‘blind’ conditions, while vibrations sent back through the rein would provide data about the size, shape and even the stiffness of any object the robot finds.

This potentially life-saving application of robotics has been developed by King’s College London and Sheffield Hallam University, with funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Project partners have included the charity Guide Dogs, South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service and Thales Ltd. Now proof of concept has been completed, the team plan to build a full working prototype for testing in real-world firefighting conditions.

Jacques Penders, from Sheffield Hallam University, explained that the four-year project has seen the team using the tactile robot, as well as a larger Impedance Filter, in a number of scenarios from a university gym to a smoke-filled cave in Germany.

The team has developed a tactile language for using robotics in a number of domestic scenarios and now plans to explore how reins and haptic signals could help older people in their homes.

Currently, even when they have a map of the building, firefighters have to grope their way forward if smoke has badly affected visibility, feeling their way along a wall or following ropes laid by the first firefighter on the scene. But with only 20 minutes of oxygen per firefighter, there’s a real need for any innovation that can help them move more quickly and easily.

With the new system, the firefighter would wear a special sleeve covering their entire arm and incorporating electronic micro-vibrators that turn the signals sent back by the robot into detailed data that the firefighter would have been trained to interpret.

The robot would also sense any hesitation or resistance from the firefighter and adjust its pace accordingly. In addition, it would be programmed to predict the follower’s next actions, based on the way they are moving as well as on their previous actions. In trials, blind-folded volunteers were guided by a robot. By using an algorithm the robot could detect the fire-fighters level of trust.

Dr. Thrishantha Nanayakkara of King’s College London says: We’ve made important advances in understanding robot-human interactions and applied these to a classic life-or-death emergency scenario where literally every second counts. Robots on reins could add an invaluable extra dimension to firefighting capabilities.

Professor Penders added: EPSRC support has enabled us to undertake a real breadth of research and given us the scope to explore a range of approaches for human-robot interaction in no-visibility conditions that we simply couldn’t have looked at with other forms of funding. The outcome has been exciting and not only could help our world-class firefighting services become even more effective in future but may also find application in healthcare, for instance.

Senior designer Heath Reed, also of Sheffield Hallam University, added: With the use of robots in emergency situations still in its relative infancy it is crucial to develop an understanding of how robotics interact with people and how those communications can be explored.

This project paves the way for robotics to be developed in a number of exciting sectors and I would expect the next five years to see some real developments based on our own research.

Notes for Editors

The REINS research project ran from April 2011 to March 2015 and received EPSRC funding of total of £661,000 at Sheffield Hallam University and Kings College London.

The haptic based guidance data collected in this project is now free for download from the Human Interaction Database on the Thrish lab website.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The EPSRC is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

King's College London

King's College London is one of the top 20 universities in the world (2014/15 QS World University Rankings) and one of the oldest in England. King's has nearly 26,000 students (of whom more than 10,600 are graduate students) from some 140 countries worldwide, and more than 7,000 staff. The College is in the second phase of a £1 billion redevelopment programme which is transforming its estate.

Reference: PN 21-15

Contact Details

For media enquiries contact the researchers and for images contact EPSRC.

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Dr Thrishantha Nanayakkara
Department: Department of Informatics
Organisation: King's College London
Telephone: 020 7848 2256

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: Professor Jacques Penders
Department: Centre for Automation and Robotics Research
Organisation: Sheffield Hallam University
Telephone: 0114 225 3738

In the following table, contact information relevant to the page. The first column is for visual reference only. Data is in the right column.

Name: EPSRC Press Office
Telephone: 01793 444404