Wanted: Bionic suits for firemen

Wanted: Bionic suits for firemen

It is the stuff of science-fiction films. But soon, firefighters in Singapore could be wearing a rechargeable, wireless mechanical suit to help them carry heavy loads - and possibly even hold up collapsing ceilings.

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has called for interested parties to develop, supply, deliver and test two sets of exoskeleton prototype systems geared towards enhancing firefighting and rescue capabilities.

An invitation to tender was put up on Nov 13 last year, and it is understood that several interested companies attended a briefing soon after. One of them was local start-up Hope Technik. The tender window is due to close on Jan 27.

"MHA is constantly exploring new technologies that can enhance the operational effectiveness of the Home Team," a ministry spokesmantold The Sunday Times.

"Exoskeleton technology is one area that the ministry is exploring. The exoskeleton suit can enable Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers to carry heavier loads, and strengthen their physical endurance when conducting firefighting and rescue operations, as well as emergency medical responses."

According to technical requirements specified in the tender documents, the strength-boosting suit that the MHA is seeking to develop is to be powered by rechargeable batteries that can last at least an hour. It should not weigh more than 25kg, and allow the wearer to squat, walk on flat ground at a speed of 5kmh, and climb up and down 10 storeys of typical staircases.

It should also enable the wearer to carry objects on his back that are as heavy as him and lift objects up to 0.6 times his weight. The suit must be able to withstand typical fire temperatures as well as light wet weather.

As with most emergency equipment, speed is key, and the suit should require less than five minutes to be fully activated or taken off by the wearer.

Should the MHA's plans succeed, Singapore's firefighters could be the first in the world to use the super suits.

No other country is known to employ similar technology, according to Mr Ken Chen, an industrial designer at the East China Architectural Design and Research Institute.

As a graduate student in Monash University, he researched and designed a powered exoskeleton suit for firefighters that won a gold award at the 2014 Melbourne Design Awards. He came up with his idea after being shocked by a fatal high-rise fire that killed 50 people in Shanghai about five years ago.

It could help firefighters to clear debris from key passageways, or hold up collapsing ceilings, said Mr Chen, who found he could create "shoes" allowing for load distribution, thus enabling the wearer to carry more.

Challenges in designing such equipment include ensuring sufficient battery life and protecting the battery components from high temperatures. "It's great to know the Singapore Government has the intent (to) develop such suits," he said. "It could help save more lives."

This article was first published on January 18, 2015.
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