Twins Geoffrey Howe
(left) and Michael
Howe flank their
new invention —
a fire-fighting robot
known as the
THERMITE TAKES THE HEAT
Brothers Geoffrey and Michael Howe (who
build robots for the military) decided there was a
need for a bot that fights fires. The Thermite weighs
1,400 pounds, stands about four feet tall, and moves
on a track (for now). Running on diesel, it has video
and infrared cameras so it can be remotely
Geoffrey calls it the "Swiss Army knife of
robotic responses" since it can operate with various
attachments like a hydraulic arm for saving humans.
After spending a couple of years testing the firebot,
the twins have already sold a few of them.
The Thermite has been described as a rugged
powerhouse of a vehicle.At 34 inches wide, Michael
says it's small enough to get into a burning room, yet
powerful and well-equipped enough to extinguish
fires when it gets there.
For example, a hydraulic arm can be bolted on
with the strength to pull a human out of a burning
building, among other things."It can move a 55
gallon drum full of chemicals away from a fire,"
Geoffrey comments."It can do all sorts of things
that you may need done in an emergency situation
including turning valves, cutting wires, or cutting
The Thermite has been tested in a number of
situations, including a scenario known as a bleve,
"which is a boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion,"
Michael says. “This happens when a tanker truck
rolls over, and you can see on the news a big fire
shooting out of a tanker, and eventually it explodes.
A lot of firefighters lose their lives trying to get in
there and extinguish that. This can go in there.Also
fuel farms — where they keep all the fuel — they
catch on fire, and it's just too hot to get in there.
Send a robot in. I believe this technology (in five to
10 years) will be standard operating procedure for
every fire department, to have some sort of robotic
NICE PRICED MITT
As part of DARPA's ARM program, Sandia has partnered
with Stanford University to create a dexterous robot hand on
As Sandia puts it,"The Sandia Hand addresses challenges that
have prevented widespread adoption of other robotic hands such
as cost, durability, dexterity, and modularity." You can attach tools
like screwdrivers or flashlights (or laser cannons), and the
modular design also makes the hand durable, since the fingers
will just fall off if something smacks into them. As principal
investigator Curt Salisbury explains,"If a finger pops off, the
robot can actually pick it up with the remaining fingers, move it
into position, and resocket the finger by itself.” Also, the "skin" of
the hand is designed to mimic the flexibility of human tissue,
providing some shock absorption and allowing the hand to more
firmly grasp objects.
This is all really cool stuff, but the cost is where the hand
really comes through. In low volume production, the Sandia Hand
should only cost about $10,000 total. (Fingers included.) For the
record, Sandia's press information says that's about 90% less than
other commercially available robot hands with similar
independently actuated degrees of freedom.
The operator controls the robot with a glove, and the lifelike
design allows even first-time users to manipulate the robot easily.
Using Sandia’s robotic hand to disable IEDs (improvised
explosive devices) might help lead investigators to the bomb
makers themselves. Often, bombs are disarmed simply by blowing
them up. While effective, that destroys evidence and presents a
challenge to investigators trying to catch the bomb maker.A
robotic hand that can handle the delicate disarming operation
while preserving the evidence could lead to more arrests and
SERVO 10.2012 29