Goal: Save Firefighters' Lives
Project: Intel Fireball
THESIS: Firefighters might not know what they're up against when they enter a burning building. But if they have a way to assess the danger inside before going in, they'll be better equipped to avoid injuries and deaths.
METHOD: Build an orb that can be tossed inside a building to gather information and send it back to the firefighters—almost like a satellite sending data back to NASA. The 1.5-pound Fireball gathers data and uploads it instantly via built-in Wi-Fi. Firefighters can pull up information on an app.
RESULTS OF TEST FIRE: The app connected to the Fireball tells important details such as the levels of dust, which indicate the likelihood of explosions, guiding firefighters to hold back or increase airflow to the area. If the temperature monitor shows a site that's hot but has no flames, it could signal an imminent explosion; firefighters may call for reinforcements, get more hoses, and ventilate the area. Ammonia could suggest the presence of hazardous materials, which means firefighters should keep their masks on longer and call for a special-response team.
1. Strengthen insulation
Once inside a fire, the Fireball's clock is ticking: Its electronics need to gather and send data before they begin to melt (which takes about 45 seconds in 500-degree heat). Right now it works, but it's not perfect. Intel may improve the ball's insulation to buy the tech more time.
2. Ensure an upright landing
When the Fireball lands in a building, its sensors need to point upward, not toward the ground. To do that, the ball is bottom-weighted and the sensor is on top—landing and orienting like a Weeble. Intel must refine that mechanism to work amid debris.
3. Fine-tune the sensors
If a sensor is wrong about, say, how much gasoline is in a room, firefighters could be in trouble. Intel is conducting extensive testing to make sure its data margin of error is as small as possible.
The Fireball works well in a lab but now must undergo rigorous real-world testing. ("You never know what you'll uncover in an actual fire," says lead technologist Terry O'Shea.) Intel hopes to have the Fireball market ready within six months, at which point it will license the tech to a company that targets firefighters.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.