12 DARPA projects that may aid firefighters

DARPA has long chased moon-shot technology goals for the military; some of what it's working on now could find its way into firefighting

Some of the best research and development on the planet is conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense and its civilian contractors. Often, equipment that’s initially developed for military use is eventually adapted for municipal and industrial applications.

I engaged in a bit of window shopping, looking at what’s in the military research pipeline to see what might have future use in the fire service. And there’s no better place for that window shopping than at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s website. Here’s 12 of some of the more interesting projects that may one day become part of the fire service.

Equipment that's initially developed for military use is eventually adapted for municipal and industrial applications.
Equipment that's initially developed for military use is eventually adapted for municipal and industrial applications. (Photo/DARPA YouTube)

1. Adaptable navigation systems

Like the fire service, our military forces encounter many environments (inside buildings, in urban canyons and in dense foliage) that have limited or no GPS access. This system addresses three basic challenges.

  • Better inertial measurement units that require fewer external position fixes.
  • Alternate sources to GPS for those external position fixes.
  • New algorithms and architectures for rapidly reconfiguring a navigation system with new and non-traditional sensors for a mission.

2. Adaptive radio frequency technology

Today’s interconnected wireless world has led to congested airwaves, making radio frequency management a hot topic. ART-enabled cognitive radios would be able to reconfigure themselves to operate in any frequency band with any modulation and for multiple access specifications under a range of environmental and operating conditions.

3. Advanced radio frequency mapping

RadioMap can be likened to traffic cameras in busy cities that show the flow of traffic at different times of the day, giving real-time awareness of whether a section of road is jammed with traffic or clear. That helps drivers plan their commute and traffic officials open and close express lanes.

RadioMap isn’t designed to deal with specifics of transmissions, but rather to identify frequency usage — where and when the radio frequency highway is jammed or clear — allowing better planning and allocation of the spectrum to soldiers overseas operating in RF-congested environments.

4. Aircrew labor in-cockpit automation system (ALIAS)

Improvements in aviation technology has improved mission safety and success rates for both civilian and military aircraft. Think medevac helicopters or wildland planes, for example.

Even so, operators of even the most automated aircraft must still manage dauntingly complex interfaces and be prepared to respond effectively in emergencies and other unexpected situations that no amount of training can fully prepare them for.

ALIAS seeks to develop a tailorable, drop-in, removable kit that would promote the addition of high levels of automation into existing aircraft to help reduce pilot workload, augment mission performance and improve aircraft safety.

5. Broad operational language translation

BOLT is aimed at enabling communication with non-English-speaking populations and identifying important information in foreign-language sources by:

  • Enabling English-speakers to understand foreign-language sources of all genres, including chat, messaging and informal conversation.
  • Providing English-speakers the ability to quickly identify targeted information in foreign-language sources using natural-language queries.
  • Enabling multi-turn communication in text and speech with non-English speakers. If successful, BOLT will deliver all capabilities free from domain or genre limitations.

6. DARPA robotics challenge

Some disasters, due to grave risks to the health and well-being of rescue and aid workers, prove too great in scale or scope for timely and effective human response. The primary technical goal of the DRC is to develop human-supervised ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments.

The DRC program website provides highlights, including the DRC trials held in December 2013 and the DRC finals in June 2015.

7. Legged squad support system (LS3)

Today’s dismounted soldier can be saddled with more than 100 pounds of gear, resulting in physical strain, fatigue and degraded performance — sound familiar, firefighters? LS3 is highly mobile, semi-autonomous, four-legged robot (think mechanical mule) that can carry a 400-pound load, follow squad members through rugged terrain and interact with personnel in a natural way (think that pack mule and its handler).

Reading about LS3, and watching the video of the field testing, I couldn’t help but think how such a beast of burden could be of value to wildland firefighters and firefighters working during natural and man-made disasters. Watch the video and see if you don’t agree.

8. Mobile hotspots

To overcome the challenge of data transmission in remote areas, the mobile hotspots program intends to develop and demonstrate a scalable, mobile, millimeter-wave communications backbone with the capacity and range needed to connect dismounted soldiers with forward-operating bases, tactical operations centers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets, and fixed communications infrastructure.

The backbone should also provide reliable end-to-end data delivery between hotspots, as well as from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sources and command centers.

9. Multifunction radio frequency

The MFRF program is looking to develop a multifunction onboard sensor to perform a variety of tasks that enhance the survivability of the aircraft by improving a rotorcraft pilot’s ability to discern obstacles, cables or other aircraft during flight or while landing.

It is expected that this plug-and-play multifunctional system could be employed as a replacement sensor on existing aircraft, as an insertion into future aircraft or as a sensor suite suitable for unmanned aircraft.

10. Social media in strategic communication (SMISC)

The general goal of the SMISC program is to develop a new science of social networks built on an emerging technology base. The program seeks to develop tools to help identify misinformation or deception campaigns and counter them with truthful information, reducing adversaries' ability to manipulate events.

Think of the possible uses for this technology for managing information on social media during fluid, natural and man-made disasters.

11. Strategic social interaction modules program (SSIM)

In contemporary military operations, service members are called on to act as street-level diplomats, negotiators, peacekeepers, law enforcement officers and relief workers. This is not too different from the mission firefighters and medics find themselves in.

Because their military training, however, focuses primarily on kinetic operations (like firefighter training), many service members, especially those junior in age and experience, find these roles unfamiliar and challenging. Again, sounds like an apt description for many of our younger firefighters.

SSIM seeks to develop innovative, cost-effective methods for training soldiers in the basic human dynamics skills and proficiencies needed to enter social encounters, regardless of the cultural, linguistic or other contextual parameters.

12. Warrior web

The added weight of personal protective gear for soldiers while bending, running, squatting, jumping and crawling in a tactical environment increases the risk of musculoskeletal injury, particularly on vulnerable areas such as ankles, knees and lumbar spine.

The added load weight also causes an increase in physical fatigue, which further decreases the body’s ability to perform tasks and protect against both acute and chronic injury.

The ultimate program goal is a lightweight, conformal under-suit that is transparent to the user — like a diver’s wetsuit. The suit seeks to employ a system (or web) of closed-loop controlled actuation, transmission and functional structures that protect injury prone areas, focusing on the soft tissues that connect and interface with the skeletal system.

In addition to direct injury mitigation, warrior web will have the capacity to augment positive work done by the muscles, to reduce the physical burden, by leveraging the web structure to impart joint torque at the ankle, knee, and hip joints.

The suit seeks to reduce the metabolic cost of carrying a typical assault load, as well as compensate for the weight of the suit itself, while consuming no more than 100 watts of electric power from the battery source.

That’s some pretty futuristic stuff in the works. But think about some of the equally futuristic technologies that have found their way into the fire service over the years. For example, thermal imaging cameras, Kevlar and PBI, biomedical equipment and hazardous gas monitors.

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