The average weight of a firefighter's "turnout" gear is around 50 pounds, and can get up to 75, 100 or even 125 pounds for emergencies like wildfires or water rescues. Now imagine trying to climb 20 flights of stairs or carry someone to safety on top of all that.
An industrial designer in Melboune, Australia, is proposing a hi-tech solution to assist rescue workers in such scenarios. The AFA Powered Exoskeleton is designed to supplement muscle performance and help firefighters manage all the extra weight without impeding freedom of movement.
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The AFA (Advanced Firefighting Apparatus) exoskeleton is the master's degree design project of Ken Chen, a graduate student at Monash University in Melbourne. While there is no working prototype as of yet, the AFA concept is based on existing military and industrial exoskeleton systems.
In its current design, the AFA weighs about 50 pounds but can help a firefighter carry additional weight of up to 200 pounds. The exoskeleton is designed to fit over the top of standard firefighting gear and is equipped with emergency release joints - one pull and the exoskeleton automatically disassembles and collapses.
Chen told Discovery News he was inspired to design the system after reading about the 2010 Shanghai fire that killed 58 people in a high-rise apartment.
"In my research, I found that high-rise buildings can hold thousands of people well above the reach of fire department aerial devices, and once the fire is above the operational reach of ladders or elevating platforms, the chance of rescuing victims is nearly zero," Chen said. "This means the only viable way of rescue for firefighters is the stairs. I wanted to utilize an existing or near-future technology to increase firefighters' walking and carrying abilities."
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Chen's design also includes a hands-free, forearm-mounted water gun and a miniature "jaws of life" unit on the heavy-duty "Rescuer" model. The exoskeletons would be powered by lithium-polymer batteries with a two-hour continuous operation time.
"According to my research, there are no other firefighting exoskeleton concepts in development - I got the inspiration from military exoskeletons designed by the U.S. Army," Chen said.
"Also, some sci-fi movies."