Fighting fires is one of the most terrifying professions imaginable, but I've written previously about ways in which technology might be able to help keep the men and women of the fire services safe as they enter burning buildings. The Jet Propulsion Lab developed a system called AUDREY, which stands for Assistant for Understanding Data through Reasoning, Extraction, and sYnthesis, in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security. AUDREY is capable of tracking the team of firefighters as they enter a building, all the time sending them data that is personalized to their location in the facility. It is even capable of giving them recommendations on where and what to do next. "As a firefighter moves through an environment, AUDREY could send alerts through a mobile device or head-mounted display," the team said.
As wildfires sweep California amid what's been an uncharacteristically early and hot summer, some fire departments have turned to Augmented Reality to keep personnel in the field informed. It's a trial by fire (if you'll excuse a bad pun) for AR, a technology that's finally beginning to emerge as more than a novelty. "The unique nature of fighting fires necessitates the use of knowing the precise locations of teams, equipment, and potential hazards," he told me. "EdgyBees augments live video feeds with geo-information layers, including maps, building layouts, points of interest, user-generated markers, and more data layers that provide visual context and operational intelligence." According to Kaplan, the technology can be conceptualized by imagining a sports broadcaster chalking up a play on the screen.
Early versions of immersive technologies, which include augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), resemble their video game forebears in that they are essentially journeys of discovery through different stages of preprogrammed experiences. We can scale virtual cliffs and mountains while riding a roller coaster or stumble over park benches in pursuit of Pokémon Go characters. However, as immersive technologies become imbued with machine learning and AI, digital experiences will become increasingly multisensory, making them more convincingly "real." For example, Fast Company reports that surgeons can now practice a procedure using VR with a stylus that simulates the feel of operating on an open knee joint. The AR and VR of the future will gather information from the surrounding physical environment and instantly pass it back to an AI for analysis in order to derive unique, in-the-moment responses to our actions.
Firefighting gear has evolved continuously since the 1600s to keep pace with the challenges that firefighters face, such as the numerous blazes that are currently ravaging Northern California. During the colonial days, structures routinely burned to the ground because firefighters simply lacked the necessary protection (any protection, really) to enter buildings and fight fires from the inside. The development of the first helmet in the 1730s, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in 1863 and the telescoping ladder in the 1880s helped make the job safer. Though it wasn't until the 1980s that modern Nomex- and Kevlar-impregnated gear became common. Today, however, the firefighting community is going through a technological revolution that could grant tomorrow's firefighters near superhuman abilities.
"The information all becomes shareable and then the decision will be made by these kind of guardian angels for each of the firefighters," said Edward Chow, manager of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Civil Program Office and AUDREY program manager. The AI automatically warns a police officer inside to evacuate, while also telling incoming firefighters or hazardous-material teams to address the threat quickly. Those firefighters, police officers and EMTs of the future will carry body-worn sensors, cameras and augmented glasses with heads-up displays. "The proliferation of miniaturized sensors and internet of things devices can make a tremendous impact on first responder safety, connectivity and situational awareness," said John Merrill, Next Generation First Responder program manager for the DHS' Science and Technology Directorate.