HOOPESTON — At 400 pounds and only 2 feet tall, one steel-clad firefighter got some curious looks, arriving at the scene of a fire in a used-tire processing facility in Hoopeston on Wednesday.
But after dragging a 2-inch fire hose into the collapsed building and watering down hot spots that were too dangerous for humans, this robot firefighter had people wanting to take its picture.
It was the first time the firefighting robot from Purdue University had been deployed to a working fire in the United States, according to Purdue Homeland Security Institute Director Eric Dietz.
The robot was developed by a Korean company, and over the last year, Purdue students and researchers have been perfecting the robot that's designed to enter fires that are too hot, too poisonous, too smoky or too collapsed for human firefighters.
Dietz and a colleague have been working with the company to determine how to improve the technology and other capabilities of the robot to make it a more effective firefighting tool.
Dietz said the fire in Hoopeston was a great opportunity to test the robot and demonstrate how it can aide firefighters by going into areas that are unstable.
The roof of the J&R Used Tire Service building at 103 Maple St. in Hoopeston had partially collapsed onto tires and mangled steel, but there were hot spots in that mess.
Hoopeston Fire Chief Cliff Crabtree said firefighters were forced to take a defensive approach in fighting the blaze, meaning that they couldn't enter the building and fight it from inside.
"It reached areas we couldn't reach from the exterior," Crabtree said of the robot.
He said it pulled a 2-inch fully charged hose.
"It worked really well," he said of the robot. "We found a lot of hot spots under the roofing."
Fire department officials in Champaign called the Purdue University Fire Department on Wednesday to help with the Hoopeston tire fire, knowing that department had firefighting foam, so it brought the robot, too.
Dietz said due to the size of the almost 400,000-square-foot building, even the aerial ladders of the fire trucks couldn't spray water into the very center of the building. But the robot accessed that area from the ground, dousing hot spots with the fire hose that connects to the back of the small, tank-like robot that has a nozzle on its front to spray the water. At 2 feet wide and 3 long, the robot moves by dual tracks, but is operated by remote-control, and an infrared camera helps it find the hot spots.
Dietz said the Korean company designed the robot mainly as a platform to deliver water, but he and his colleague believe it could be even more useful with some sensors that could test for gases or floor integrity of a structure.
They've also identified some areas for improvement, specifically its battery life of only four hours, which is how long it worked the Hoopeston fire. Dietz said if they can get the battery life extended, it could be much more useful, because it doesn't need replenishment or backup crews.
Dietz said the robot has been used by the Purdue Fire Department and on training exercises in the last six months, but this was the first time it was deployed to fight a fire in the U.S.
"We learned things," he said of its operational test.