Teen Inventor Honored for His "FireBot"

Search and rescue robot helps firefighters navigate burning buildings remotely

Siddharth Thakur with his "FireBot" invention (Courtesy of Siddharth Thakur)

The inspiration for FireBot came to Siddharth Thakur four years ago, when the inventor was 13 years old. "I was researching a technology to combat wildland fires when I heard about the death of a local firefighter in a structural fire on the news," Thakur said. "And this got me thinking – why couldn't I use my technical skills to develop a solution to a problem in my local community, rather than trying to solve a problem many states away?"

FireBot, the search and rescue robot that Thakur soon began developing, won the People's Choice Award at the 2021 Collegiate Inventors Competition on Oct. 13. It's a 20-pound steel robot that firefighters can remotely guide through burning buildings using a joystick. FireBot climbs over obstacles and sends back live video and thermal data to let firefighters see conditions inside structures without risking their lives. It also has a two-way speaker system that can help lead victims to safety.

Most importantly, FireBot won't burn up. "The primary reason FireBot is novel is its thermal insulation system," Thakur said. "There are several layers of high-temperature- resistant material that protect the inside electronics ... Temperatures on the floor inside a structural fire rarely exceed 300 degrees Fahrenheit, because heat rises. At these temperatures, Fire­Bot can last well over 40 minutes, which is over four times as long as a firefighter with all their protective gear on."

Thakur had long conversations with the fire chief in his hometown of Houston before undertaking the project. He was shocked to learn that firefighters don't often make use of robotic technology. "They rely on basic techniques to enter the fire and look for human life," he said, "and they get trapped, they run out of air, they lose their way, and then they die." Over the last decade, 33 firefighters lost their lives in building fires nationwide; more than 10,000 were injured in 2019 alone.

Thakur worked through three versions of FireBot during his high school years with the help of Roland Fields, the fabrication lab manager at Houston Community College. Fields opened the doors of his lab to the young inventor, brainstormed ideas with him, and served as his advisor at the competition. Now that Thakur has moved to Austin and begun an electrical engineering degree at UT, he is redesigning FireBot once again. He's also hoping to bring on additional team members and acquire funding.

The win at the Collegiate Inventors Competition earned Thakur $2,000 and made him eligible for patenting help from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, one of the competition's sponsors. "Currently, we have a provisional patent and we're hoping to file a few more," Thakur said. "I'm super grateful because the USPTO gave us a patent accelerator. I'm assuming typically it takes around one year to get a patent approved. This cuts it down to a couple months."

Thakur says he is in talks with Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker on using AFD training facilities to test the current version of FireBot. After refining the design once more, he hopes to send copies of the robot to fire departments across Central Texas for further study. The ultimate goal is to create a product that can be used worldwide.

But as he settles into his new life at UT, Thakur has had time to consider other interests. He wants to help solve problems related to climate change and plastic pollution. "I've been doing a lot of, 'Where do I go from here?'" he said. "But I've also been doing a lot of thinking, and I know I wouldn't have gotten here without my family's support. So I'd like to give a shout-out to my mom, Leena Palav."

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated Thakur won $1,500 at the 2021 Collegiate Inventors Competition. Thakur was awarded $2,000. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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