Cal Poly Students Create Robot That Can Extinguish Embers from Dangerous Wildfires

Device is one of more than 20 that will be on display during Nov. 22 Project Expo

Mechanical engineering student Kylie Fernandez performs a measurement for her team’s Project EMBER project. Photo courtesy Ryan Kissinger.
SAN LUIS OBISPO — A year after the deadliest wildfire in California history, a team of Cal Poly engineering students has created a robot to detect burning embers and immediately extinguish them with water, potentially protecting residents and their homes.

“The dangers of a single ember or firebrand are incredible, as evidenced by the spark from a downed power line that caused the Camp Fire,” said Ryan Kissinger, a mechanical engineering senior. “With the right wind conditions, small embers can launch far beyond the heart of the wildfire, starting spot fires in neighboring areas.”

Project EMBER (Economical, Mechatronic, Burn-Extinguishing Robot) is among more than 20 senior projects that will be on display Friday, Nov. 22 during the Mechanical Engineering Department’s fall Project Expo. 

The expo includes multiple projects focused on making life better for others, including a jogger designed for a 17-year-old disabled girl so she can go on runs with her father; an electronically cooled pillow for those who suffer from insomnia; and a pedaling device that could generate power for developing nations.

“Engineering students need to understand that their skills can help other people,” said Lee McFarland, a mechanical engineering lecturer and senior project advisor.

The disabled girl, Katie Robinson, has been interested in spending more outdoor time with her father since he began running and participating in half marathons four years ago. Yet, her father has been unable to find a jogger that’s the right size or style for Katie.

“She enjoys being outdoors, being active, and she is very adventurous,” said Edward Robinson, a middle school vice-principal in Fresno. “I know she will love running with me in her new jogger, and it will enhance her quality of life by actively competing in races and ‘earning her finisher’s medal’ just like dad, which she has been referencing a bit over the last several months.”

The senior project teams solve problems posed by external sponsors – in many cases, businesses or nonprofits — making for a real-world experience, said Peter Schuster, a mechanical engineering professor. 

“They work through a full design process: defining the problem, developing creative solutions, analyzing and defining the design, building a prototype and testing that prototype,” Schuster said. “Basically, it’s more like a first design job than a class.”

The EMBER project was conceived by faculty members Richard Emberley and John Ridgely in response to the Camp Fire, the massive Butte County blaze that resulted in at least 85 fatalities and destroyed much of the rural town of Paradise in November, 2018. Specifically, the project considered the impact of wildfire embers, which can travel miles in the wind and spark large fires upon landing in or near residential areas.

“The issue,” Kissinger said, “is that homeowners only have two actions to defend their homes from wildfires: one, staying home to put out potential fires with a hose, which is incredibly dangerous, or two, leaving their neighborhood, hoping their houses can brave the spread of wildfires.”

The robot prototype his team created is a cylinder-shaped device that pivots with an encoder-controlled motor and uses a Lepton thermal camera to detect embers. Once it detects heat, the robot aims a spray nozzle and can shoot water up to 25 feet away.

The device checks to ensure the heat has been extinguished, then continues to patrol.

“Mechanical testing proves our concept to be effective,” Kissinger said.

Edward Robinson, far right, helps place his 17-year-old daughter, Katie, in a wooden prototype of a jogger students are creating for her. A team of mechanical engineering students, including Erin Wint (left) and Abdullah Sulaiman (middle) are creating a metal jogger for Katie so she can accompany her father on half marathons. Photo courtesy Edward Robinson.
Edward Robinson, far right, helps place his 17-year-old daughter, Katie, in a wooden prototype of a jogger students are creating for her. A team of mechanical engineering students, including Erin Wint (left) and Abdullah Sulaiman (middle) are creating a metal jogger for Katie so she can accompany her father on half marathons. Photo courtesy Edward Robinson.

In photo at the top, mechanical engineering student Kylie Fernandez performs a measurement for her team’s Project EMBER project. Photo courtesy Ryan Kissinger.

Contact: Pat Pemberton
(805) 756-7402, (805) 235-0555
ppembert@calpoly.edu

November 20, 2019

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