Credit: Christine Lee | Mustang News

A team of Cal Poly engineering students created EMBER, a robot that can detect burning embers and extinguish them immediately, for their senior project to help combat California wildfires.

The prototype is a red, cylindrical device with an outer tubing of PVC piping material. EMBER contains an encoder-controlled motor that allows it to pivot 360 degrees and uses a Lepton thermal camera to detect heat. Once the robot detects heat, it will extinguish any fire embers with a spray nozzle that can shoot water up to 25 feet. 

“We can think of it like an automatic sprinkler,” mechanical engineering senior Daniel Santoro said.

EMBER — or Economical, Mechatronic, Burn-Extinguishing Robot — was conceptualized by mechanical engineering professors Richard Emberley and John Ridgely after the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County.

“When I was watching some of the heartbreaking news about the fires in California, the idea just came to mind,” Ridgely said.

The project started in January 2019 and took three quarters to complete. Emberley said their main focus was to create a device that would prevent wildfires from occurring in residential areas. 

“John and I wanted to create a way [so] that a homeowner wouldn’t have to make a decision to stay and defend their home, but still be able to put out fires that are relatively small with a hose,” Emberley said.

A majority of wildfires are started by embers that are hot smoldering bits of bark that fall on a resident’s lawn, according to Emberley. He added that with EMBER, these small fires would be stopped before it could escalate into a wildfire. 

There is still much work to be done with finalizing the robot, Ridgely said. For example, Ridgely said he wants to continue researching for an improved way for EMBER to distinguish fire apart from other heat sources, like an animal at night or hot cars.

Another goal for the team is to make EMBER more affordable and accessible for most homeowners, Santoro said. It currently costs $330, but the team anticipates that if the device is mass produced, it could cost less than $150, according to Santoro.   

“What we’re hoping is that some entrepreneurs will pick this up and make it into a product,” Ridgely said. “It’s a long way from getting an idea and showing an idea that works.”

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