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No doubt you ve watched a fire at the beach or in a fireplace and noted that the flame changes color depending on the material being burned. Some materials burn yellow or orange, while others burn green or blue (indeed, this is how those specialty fireplace logs burn in different colors). Just like the color signature given off when different materials burn, the flames of the fire flicker at different but predictable rates. You can use this so-called flame modulation in a robot fire detection system to determine what is a real fire and what is likely just sunlight streaming through a window or light from a nearby incandescent lamp. By detecting the rate of flicker from a fire and referencing it against known values, it is possible to greatly reduce false alarms. The technique is beyond the scope of this book, but you could design a simple flame-flicker system using an op amp, a fast analog-to-digital converter, and a computer or microcontroller. The analog-to-digital converter would translate the instantaneous brightness changes of the fire into digital signals. The patterns made by those signals could then be referenced against those made by known sources of fire. The closer the patterns match, the greater the likelihood that there is a real fire. In a commercial product of this nature, it is more likely that the device would use more sophisticated digital signal processing.
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A pyroelectric sensor is sensitive to the infrared radiation emitted by most fires. The most common use of pyroelectric infrared (or PIR) sensors is in burglar alarms and motion detectors. The sensor detects the change in ambient infrared radiation as a person (or animal or other heat-generating object) moves within the field of view of the sensor. The key ingredient here is change: a PIR sensor cannot detect heat per se but the changes in the heat within its field of view. In larger fires, the flickering flames create enough of a change to trigger the PIR detector. 36, Collision Avoidance and Detection, discusses how to use PIR sensors to detect the motion of people and animals around a robot. The same sensor, with little or no change, can be employed to detect fires. To be effective as a firefighter, you should ideally reduce the sensor s field of the view so the robot can detect smaller fires. The larger the field of view, the more the temperature and/or position of the heat source must change in order for the PIR sensor to detect it.
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With a smaller field of view, the magnitude of change can be lower. However, with a small field of view, your robot will likely need to sweep the room, using a servo or stepper motor, in order to observe any possible fires. The sweeping must stop periodically so the robo can take a room reading. Otherwise, the motion of the sensor could trigger false alarms.
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Where there s smoke, there s fire. Statistics show that the majority of fire deaths each year are caused not by burns but by smoke inhalation. For less than $15, you can add smoke detection to your robot s long list of capabilities and with a little bit of programming have it wander through the house checking each room for trouble. You ll probably want to keep it in the most fire-prone rooms, such as the basement, kitchen, laundry room, and robot lab. You can build your own smoke detector using individually purchased components, but some items, such as the smoke detector cell, are hard to find. It s much easier to use a commercially available smoke detector and modify it for use with your robot. In fact, the process is so simple that you can add one to each of your robots. Tear the smoke detector apart and strip it down to the base circuit board.
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The active element used for detecting smoke the radioactive substance Americium 241 has a half-life of approximately seven years. After about five to seven years, the effectiveness of the alarm is diminished, and you should replace it. Using a very old alarm will render your Smokey the Robot fairly ineffectual at detecting the smoke of fires.
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