The secrets of Colossus, the robot firefighter who faced the fire of Notre-Dame de Paris

Portrait of Colossus, the “robot firefighter” built by Shark Robotics and used in the fire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

April 2019. An unprecedented fire broke out at Notre-Dame de Paris. The famous spire collapses. Quickly, the Paris fire brigade is sent to the scene. She will fight the flames for almost 15 hours. During the operation, the firefighters were not alone: ​​a “robot-firefighter” was the first to enter the burning cathedral to assess the situation, then to support the emergency services.

Taking the form of a rover, it responds to the name of Colossus. This is used about ten times a week by the Paris firefighters on fires of varying sizes. It is a French company which is the designer and manufacturer from A to Z: Shark Robotics. The company is the only one in France to supply robots for civil security.

Founded in 2016, the company delivered its first robot — a first-generation Colossus — to Paris firefighters the same year. It only took eight months of development. ” The fact of having associated the firefighters of Paris by benefiting from their experience for the development of the robot also allowed us to have a psychological acceptance of the product. », Tells us the founder of Shark Robotics, Cyril Kabbara.

Colossus robot. // Source: Shark Robotics

But a “robot-firefighter” must not only be used by firefighters: it must meet a certain number of very strict criteria that can change everything in the field. Colossus must be able transport equipment, evacuate wounded, provide respiratory assistance, perform reconnaissance/surveillance missions “. Most of these functions correspond to modules patented by Shark Robotics.

What are the secrets of Colossus?

The Colossus robot must resist fire

The first essential criterion for a robot firefighter seems most obvious: resistance to fire. It all starts with a test: We put the robots in big ovens where we come to test the resistance of our materials and our batteries “, explains Cyril Kabbara.

In common batteries, lithium-ion is an element of vulnerability: how to prevent them from being affected? This lies first in the assembly: the cells are assembled by laser, which gives them resistance to vibrations. Another key is to be found in heat dissipation, which has to do with the way the batteries are encapsulated; heat must not accumulate in the components.

Fire resistance also depends on the materials. No particle of the robot should potentially… melt. During the Notre-Dame fire, Colossus had to go through an abrasive atmosphere of up to 800 degrees Celsiusfor several hours.

Colossus-Notre-Dame-BastienGUERCHE Civil Security
Colossus in action in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. // Credits: Bastien Guerche – Civil Security

The maximum threshold is 900 degrees and the displacement crawler is supposed to hold up to 1000 degrees. To reach these thresholds without failing, we find in Colossus thermoplastics – filled plastics that are more robust in the face of high temperatures. Aeronautical aluminum is also used: a light material, which has the particularity of resisting heat ” but also to deform and return to its initial position “, explains Cyril Kabarra. Add other materials such as molybdenum alloys, several types of steel, carbon.

A Swiss army knife robot equipped with all the paraphernalia

When he is mobilized in the field, he is ” out of the question that the robot breaks down after 2 hours “Warns Cyril Kabarra. Colossus carries 6 batteries which, taken together, should give it 12 hours of autonomy and not one less. But it is far from having only that on board.

“It is out of the question that the robot breaks down after 2 hours”

Cyril Kabarra

A robot like Colossus not only has to withstand high temperatures and last a long time, it has to be useful for firefighters in the field. It therefore embeds a certain number of tools which can prove to be vital depending on the profile of the missions:

  • A biological and chemical radiological nuclear sensor (NRBC) to inform the firefighter about the environment – presence of gas, radioactivity or materials dangerous to health.
  • A water cannon.
  • A video turret with automatic cleaning of the optics (which tends to become clogged with ashes, dust).
  • An automatic unwinder for optical fiber: in tunnels or certain buildings, transmissions can be difficult, it is therefore possible to unwind a fiber cable behind the robot, which is deposited and rewinds automatically, and allows for connections let it happen.
  • Breathing air system: cylinders are on board, with a respirator, which allows air to be given to up to 8 firefighters or victims.

In total, Colossus weighs 500 kg and can carry up to 1 ton of material. And with all this, he must be able to overcome steps, stairs and pass a 30 cm obstacle.

The secrets of Colossus, the robot firefighter who faced the fire of Notre-Dame de Paris
The Colossus robot also has a lamp. // Source: Shark Robotics

But the paraphernalia is not only mechanical: it is also electronic. Colossus embeds an operating system based on the free Ubuntu distribution on which run bricks of “artificial intelligence”. This AI assists the human-machine interface to make piloting more fluid, but also induces automatisms: the robot must be able to detect a hot spot on its own, and to orient the water cannon itself towards this point. ; just as he must be able to orient himself towards a determined destination.

It is in AI that the future path for research and development at Shark Robotics lies: “ We are working on 100% autonomous robots “, says Cyril Kabarra to Numerama.

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The secrets of Colossus, the robot firefighter who faced the fire of Notre-Dame de Paris


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