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Segway-like robot helps fight fires with 3D, thermal imaging

Engineers at UC San Diego are testing small, mobile robotic vehicles that create virtual reality maps with temperature data that first responders can use in real time.

The robotic scout can assemble 3D maps of the interior of burning buildings. Jacobs School of Engineering/UC San Diego

In 2012, 83 firefighters died in the line of duty in the U.S. alone, and another 37 fatalities have been reported thus far in 2013. But, with better scouting tools, these numbers could be lowered.

Thank goodness for robots.

A new one out of the University of California, San Diego, may soon help first responders survey a fiery scene with its ability to enter a burning building and immediately transmit data on the state and location of the fire, the building's structural integrity, and the presence of any volatile gases -- all while on the lookout for survivors.

The robot, which for ease of reference I'll call Little Segway, is small, self-righting, can climb stairs, and comes equipped with an infrared camera (to map thermal data) and a pair of stereo RGB cameras (to map visual images that can be converted into a 3D scene). The resulting virtual reality map with temp data can be used in real time by first responders as the bot navigates the building.

The engineers, who are presenting their research at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation next year in Hong Kong, say Little Segway represents their first step toward developing robotic scouts that can map and photograph the interior of both residential and commercial buildings using stereo vision. Deploy several of these bad boys and you've got an augmented virtual reality schema of a burning building, allowing first responders to turn their search and rescue plan into something resembling a video game.

"These robot scouts will be small, inexpensive, agile, and autonomous," said Thomas Bewley, a professor of mechanical engineering, in a school news release. "To be useful, the robotic scouts need to work like well-trained hunting dogs, dispatching quickly and working together to achieve complex goals while making all necessary low-level decisions themselves along the way to get the job done."

The project remains preliminary, and the team has applied for funding from the National Science Foundation's Robotic Initiative to keep tinkering away. But for a first draft, Little Segway is looking like a serious scouting machine.