On Monday, April 15, 2019, the world watched as the beloved Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was
engulfed into flames. The flames were so dangerous and rapid that firefighters were told to retreat,
saving their own lives. Commander Jean-Claude Gallet had a plan, however – meet Colossus, the 1,100-
pound robot who ventured into the cathedral when no one else could.
Using a motorized water cannon capable of firing more than 660 gallons per minute, Colossus took aim
at the stone walls of the ancient structure and began spraying.
“Shark Robotics (the manufacturer of Colossus) says the robot — which is 2.5 feet wide and 5.25 feet
long — can carry 1,200 pounds and be operated from almost 1,000 feet away. Controlled using a
joystick, the machine is waterproof and fireproof and can even withstand thermal radiation, according
to the company. It can crawl up stairs.
The machine’s lithium ion batteries can last for up to eight hours, and the robot can be equipped with
cameras, sensors and a smoke-extracting fan.”
In Paris, time was of the essence and the goal for the commander was to save the two belfries, which
was accomplished. More importantly, no civilian or firefighters were killed at the incident.
The machine’s heroic role in the fire may be remembered as the beginning of a new era of robotic
Over the last decade, different countries and organizations have begun developing machines that fight
fires and gather intel, potentially offering a sophisticated new tool in a fire department’s arsenal.
These “robo-firefighters” help in two major ways: creating a “standoff,” a safety buffer between the
firefighter and the hazardous environment and freeing up human firefighters for other tasks.
Colossus isn’t the only type of robot being utilized. Engineers around the globe are designing robots for
fires of all types.
“There’s no one type of firefighting robot that will be able to support firefighters in all the different
situations,” said Brian Lattimer, Vice President of engineering consulting firm Jensen Hughes and a
robotics professor at Virginia Tech.
Lattimer helped design a firefighting robot for the U.S. Navy. “You really need several types of robots at
These helpful robots are a global phenomenon and come in many different forms.
The Navy’s Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) is humanoid, with arms and legs. And as
reported by IEEE Spectrum, engineers at Japan’s Tohoku University and Hachinohe College designed a
dragon-like hose powered by water jets to snake into areas inaccessible to humans.
But these robots are not autonomous – they need trained and skilled operators in the form of
firefighters who understand context and quick decision-making. Though many firefighters fear they may
not have a role in the future of firefighting, these robots are not made to replace them; they are meant
to be an additional reinforcement to use.
Lattimer is clear that “though the advances in using robots in confined, cluttered indoor environments
has been accelerating, the use of robots to navigate through unknown spaces is challenging and still
requires some level of human operation. In addition, identifying, localizing, and manipulating objects is a
complicated task which still necessitates a human operator and significant computing power, especially
for performing tasks on unknown objects.
Future use of robots in firefighting will depend on the robot durability, enough sensors for environment
monitoring and perception, task capabilities, cost, level of autonomy, and movement speed. Many of
the robots being designed for firefighting applications are lacking in some or all these areas. For
firefighters, cost is a significant consideration and is currently restricting the broader use of robotics in
firefighting. However, as these robots become more effective at conducting firefighting tasks while
firefighters monitor their performance at safe locations, robots will be used more routinely to support
A robot that kind of looks like Wall-E’s big brother helped save Notre Dame