UT-Austin freshman creates firefighter-helper robot

Leila Saidane, News Reporter

The idea for FireBot, a 20-pound heat-insulated steel robot, came to Siddharth Thakur four years ago after he heard about the death of a local firefighter.

The electrical engineering freshman, said he designed the robot to navigate through burning buildings, locate victims and guide them out in an attempt to minimize risk to firefighters during building searches. The robot is currently a prototype.

“After talking to my local fire chief extensively and him showing me around the fire department, I learned that every year thousands of firefighters are injured, and many die when they enter structural fires to improve human life,” Thakur said. “My idea was, why not develop a robotic solution that kinda mitigates this problem?”

FireBot is remotely driven into the burning building by a firefighter on scene and displays live video, thermal imagery and sensor data on hazmat conditions, Thakur said. He said the bot’s material cost ranges from $1,300-1,500 and is composed of steel and ceramic fiber, the same insulation used in ovens.

Thakur was named as a finalist at The Collegiate Inventors Competition on Sept. 13 for his prototype. The competition rewards student’s invention prototypes for originality and potential usefulness, and Thakur will present his prototype to a virtual panel of final-round judges on Oct. 13.

“I’ve definitely been extremely motivated by this competition, to take my robot from version two, to version three, where it’s effectively doubled its functionality,” Thakur said.

When he moved to Austin, Thakur said he started conversations with the Austin Fire Department to build upon his work.

“They’re giving me such great critical feedback on where the robot had to improve, but also about how excited they were about this technology,” Thakur said.

Thakur started working on the prototype in Houston Community College’s Fabrication and Innovation Lab, where his project adviser Roland Fields supervises.

“The main thing is he keeps pursuing,” Fields said. “A lot of people come up with ideas, (but) they don’t pursue it often. But his concept, which is a kind of a search robot, no one’s doing that.”

Thakur said he hopes to sell FireBot commercially one day, but there are still many versions to come before that. He also wants to collaborate with other students and advisors.

“It’s only a matter of time as technologies integrate into every part of our lives,” Thakur said. “And these firefighters haven’t seen that. A lot of these firefighters are thinking about that next step towards making their workspace more safe.”