THE NEXT-GEN­ER­A­TION WILD­LAND FIRE TRUCK

Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Live And Learn -

PRO­LOGUE

MARCH 2016. On a sunny Bay Area Fri­day, Jamie Hyne­man is alone at M5 In­dus­tries, a tin­kerer’s dream of a work­shop in south San Fran­cisco that was for 13 glo­ri­ous years or so the de facto head­quar­ters of Myth­busters, one of the most suc­cess­ful re­al­ity shows in tele­vi­sion his­tory, of which he was the wal­rus-mus­tached co­host. He’s alone here a lot these days, now that the show is over and the crew cleared out. He owns the space, and a lot of the Myth­busters stuff is still here, pieces and parts and gear stacked in neatly la­belled boxes from floor to ceil­ing.

He’s giv­ing an im­promptu tour to a cou­ple of kids, show­ing them scary masks from his days do­ing Hol­ly­wood spe­cial ef­fects and a me­chan­i­cal spi­der that’s taller than they are.

And then, in a well-lit work­room to­wards the back, he pulls out a draw­ing of what looks like a tank. He gets se­ri­ous – he’s al­ways se­ri­ous, but some­thing in his tone re­veals that this is spe­cial. The tank, he says, is un­manned. It is sad­dled with mas­sive water tanks, and out­fit­ted with a re­mote-con­trol sys­tem that will al­low it to be pi­loted di­rectly into wild­fires – the kind that can rage in this state and oth­ers in the North­west for many months each year – spray­ing water and sav­ing the lives both of fire­fight­ers and home­own­ers, a re­mote-con­trol ro­botic first re­spon­der. Noth­ing like it ex­ists, he says. Just some­thing he’s work­ing on, he says.

IN­SPI­RA­TION

ONE AF­TER­NOON IN 2003, Hyne­man was stand­ing on a film set on Her­mosa Beach, in Los An­ge­les, wear­ing full scuba gear and hold­ing a re­mote con­trol. He was sur­rounded by a crew film­ing a 7 Up com­mer­cial, for which Hyne­man had been hired to build a robot. ‘They wanted to have a 7 Up ma­chine that was mo­bile and had tank treads on it and would bring 7 Up to you, and the thing gets a lit­tle ag­gres­sive by push­ing its prod­uct on peo­ple by shoot­ing cans out the slot,’ he says. ‘So I got a lit­tle car­ried away and I ac­tu­ally made a fully au­to­matic so­dashoot­ing ma­chine gun that ac­tu­ally pro­pelled them about 640 km/h.’

Hyne­man pi­loted the ma­chine around the beach us­ing the re­mote, shoot­ing 7 Up at a surfer and crush­ing beach cruis­ers like cars at a mon­ster truck rally. The broad treads hugged the sand, piv­ot­ing the robot to and fro at Hyne­man’s whim. For the cli­max, he cranked the re­mote con­trol and sent the vend­ing ma­chine through a vol­ley­ball net and straight into the Pa­cific Ocean. He was wear­ing scuba gear so he could re­trieve it – he had made a deal with the pro­duc­tion com­pany that he’d get to keep the robot af­ter the shoot.

‘I thought we were go­ing to lose it,’ he says. ‘But just for why not, once they called cut, I hit the stick all the way over for a sec­ond, and for­wards – and the thing came march­ing right out of the water.’ He took the 7 Up robot back to his work­shop in San Fran­cisco, sand still cling­ing to those big, wide treads.

ASIDE ON JAMIE HYNE­MAN'S WAY OF WORK­ING

HYNE­MAN HAS one de­gree to his name, and it is in Rus­sian lin­guis­tics, from In­di­ana Univer­sity. Jamie Hyne­man, cre­ator of one of the most feared ro­bots on Robot Wars, Blendo – a saucer­ful of pikelets that crossed a lawn­mower en­gine with a wok with sharp ob­jects – once ran a pet store. Jamie Hyne­man was a Caribbean char­ter-boat cap­tain. Jamie Hyne­man was a chef.

He is not what you’d call a lin­ear thinker, Jamie Hyne­man. He won­ders, and he ar­rives at some­thing. When he looked at those treads, what he saw was sur­face area. And for some rea­son he can’t ex­plain, he thought of grass fires, and the fact that the most ef­fi­cient way to put out a fire was to stomp it with a wet blan­ket – wet it and smother it. He thought, In­stead of some guy out there in the field dous­ing fire with a sprayer, maybe I could spray water on those treads with all their sur­face area and roll right over the flames.

AD­DEN­DUM TO ASIDE

THIS IS NOT the tra­di­tional kind of leap to make: Maybe this thing that’s typ­i­cally used for this could ac­tu­ally be used for that. Or at least, it’s not a leap any­one else had made. No one else en­vi­sioned a pack of au­tonomous tanks run­ning down a wild­fire. That’s why some peo­ple are in­ven­tors, and some peo­ple get a strange idea, the love child of a non sequitur and a lark, and dis­miss it, be­cause Well that’s ridicu­lous and might not even work and any­way I’m late for a meet­ing and what should we have for din­ner tonight?

THE MONEY

BY 2015, Hyne­man had an idea and was work­ing on a pro­to­type. What he didn’t have was fi­nan­cial back­ing. Then he met Palmer Luckey at a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist’s pic­nic in 2016. Luckey, of course, had founded Ocu­lus VR back in 2012, built a rev­o­lu­tion­ary vir­tual-re­al­ity head­set in his par­ents’ garage, and sold the com­pany to Face­book in 2014 for $2.3 bil­lion. But within a cou­ple years of his con­ver­sa­tion with Hyne­man, he was out of Ocu­lus and get­ting ready to launch An­duril In­dus­tries.

An­duril would be a dif­fer­ent kind of de­fence con­trac­tor. The tra­di­tional model, ac­cord­ing to Luckey, is that com­pa­nies first se­cure a huge de­fence con­tract, then go try to build some­thing. An­duril would in­stead first build things wor­thy of the De­part­ment of De­fense, then sell them – by his es­ti­ma­tion a bet­ter process.

‘We talked a bunch about projects that we wanted to be work­ing on, if we could do any­thing, and I told him about some of my cra­zier stuff,’ Luckey says. ‘And he told me he had this idea for a re­mote-con­trolled fire­fight­ing ve­hi­cle that was self-cool­ing.’

An­duril wanted in on Hyne­man’s tank in part be­cause it was a per­fect test for vir­tual re­al­ity as An­duril wants to ap­ply it. Wild­fires are chaotic: chal­leng­ing ter­rain. Smoke. Heat that’s in­vis­i­ble to hu­man eyes, even when it’s in­tense enough to

cause a reig­ni­tion. But what if ter­rain could be mapped by li­dar and heat by IR cam­era and all of it paired to high-res­o­lu­tion maps, then stitched to­gether into a seam­less vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment that pi­lots could re­motely nav­i­gate us­ing a VR head­set? Hyne­man saw im­me­di­ately how that could be great for fight­ing fires. An­duril saw how it could be great for other de­fence ap­pli­ca­tions.

So, in 2017, An­duril bought in. Hyne­man is a con­trac­tor. If he can hand off a phys­i­cal ob­ject to An­duril, his work will be done.

THE VE­HI­CLE

HYNE­MAN’S FIRST IDEA was sim­ply to run tracks around a gi­ant water tank. Then one of his col­lab­o­ra­tors sug­gested look­ing at M113 ar­moured per­son­nel car­ri­ers, gi­ant peo­ple-mov­ing tanks the mil­i­tary has been us­ing since Viet­nam. They can carry and tow an ex­ces­sive amount of weight and travel 65 km/h. But there were ques­tions about the le­gal­ity of own­ing an ar­moured mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle. That led them to­wards a non-ar­moured vari­ant, the M548 tracked cargo car­rier – ba­si­cally a pickup-truck ver­sion. It had room in the back for water tanks, and be­cause it was de­signed to be air­lifted, it was rel­a­tively light at 6 577 kg. Hyne­man bought one in 2017 from an Army sur­plus store in Penn­syl­va­nia and stashed it in his shop in San Fran­cisco.

When An­duril de­cided it wanted in, and that it would be de­sign­ing a sys­tem of VR con­trols, digi­tis­ing the func­tion­al­ity of a 50-year-old mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle be­came a ne­ces­sity. A tank in a vir­tual en­vi­ron­ment is worth­less if a com­puter can’t work its throt­tle. Hyne­man en­listed Jim New­ton, a for­mer science ad­vi­sor on Myth­busters who went on to found the Techshop maker spa­ces, to de­vise, pro­gramme, and build the net­work of sen­sors and mi­cro­con­trollers that would give the tank a dig­i­tal dop­pel­gänger.

He also moved the M548 to an in­dus­trial fab­ri­ca­tion shop in Oak­land, Cooper Gray Ro­bot­ics, that he’d worked with in the past. It’s the kind of place where every spare inch of shelf space – and there’s lots of shelv­ing – seems to be stacked with scrap metal; where the crew is equally adept at cus­tomis­ing equip­ment for heavy in­dus­try, and build­ing fire-breath­ing zoomor­phic ve­hi­cles for ec­cen­tric bil­lion­aires (not that they’re al­lowed to talk about it). They were per­fect for work­ing on the mod­i­fi­ca­tions Hyne­man had de­vised, which were myr­iad – some straight­for­ward, some ec­cen­tric. The M548 went up on blocks in the crease of two tow­er­ing sets of shelves, maybe ten me­tres high, which walled off dif­fer­ent work spa­ces. On top, still for a dozen years, were the treads of the 7 Up robot.

A SCE­NARIO

IMAG­INE THIS: You are a wild­land fire­fighter bat­tling an ex­pand­ing blaze in the woods around a small town. The winds shifted sud­denly overnight, and no one was able to warn the peo­ple. You’re in a wild­land fire truck, which is pretty rugged, but there’s only one road into the town and it’s a wall of flames and the heat from the fire has ripped up the as­phalt and lay­ered the roadbed with smoul­der­ing de­bris. Even

if you could get the truck to the trapped towns­peo­ple, how could you jus­tify the risk to the driver?

‘With a sys­tem like this you can start do­ing things that are rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent,’ says Luckey. When you have in­stead of a truck, a tank, and in­stead of a driver, a re­mote pi­lot, you can charge through the wall of flames. You can crush smol­der­ing de­bris like tin­foil.

This all places an em­pha­sis on heat re­sis­tance – which was a thorny prob­lem.

‘There were just too many sur­faces e had to pro­tect,’ says New­ton. ‘Too many things. You know? From wiring to bat­ter­ies to con­trollers to elec­tronic stuff and pumps. So many things. It was like, we can’t run a tra­di­tional heat-ex­changer sys­tem on all these com­po­nents. It’s just im­pos­si­ble. I mean, yeah, we could do it, but it would be crazy. So Jamie’s idea was, well… What if we just spray water all over ev­ery­thing?”

Hyne­man calls it The Rain­storm: The in­side of the tank is a mael­strom. A coolant that is a 50/50 mix of glyc­erin and water sprays con­tin­u­ously over the en­tire in­te­rior, so the ve­hi­cle can drive into a fire with­out its electro­mechan­i­cal guts be­com­ing chitlins. Once the coolant ab­sorbs the heat, it sinks down into the ve­hi­cle’s bilge – it’s am­phibi­ous, so it has one – which is lo­cated so the coolant’s heat is passed off to the 3 800 litres of water in the tanks, af­ter which it can be pumped back to the sprayers to rain again.

So what about the towns­peo­ple who have to climb in­side the ve­hi­cle once it’s charged through the wall of flames to res­cue them? They’ll be in the rain­storm too? ‘If you go in here to get res­cued,’ Hyne­man says, ‘you come out like you’ve been in a spa.’

HYNE­MAN'S IDIOM

JAMIE HYNE­MAN is not pre­cious when he talks about his in­ven­tions. The in­side of the ve­hi­cle is del­uged by ‘the rain­storm.’ The ve­hi­cle’s elec­tron­ics live in the ‘ brain box.’ The en­tire ve­hi­cle is wrapped in a tai­lored suit of heat-re­sis­tant fab­ric, which he calls ‘fire jam­mies.’ The tube of fire jam­mies that wraps a del­uge gun looks like an ‘ele­phant’s trunk,’ and at one point, con­sid­er­ing how peo­ple be­ing res­cued will pass through the fire jam­mies to get in­side, he con­sid­ers a cir­cu­lar hole that will cinch shut, like a kind of ‘anus.’

THE DEMO

IN MAY, there was a night when New­ton stayed at the shop in Oak­land un­til mid­night, and re­turned way too early. A big demo was set for eight in the morn­ing. He’d been pro­gram­ming the ser­vop­neu­matic valves

that would al­low the tank to be re­mote­con­trolled. These were the six valves that would op­er­ate the tank’s real con­trols in the ab­sence of hu­man hands: mov­ing treads, goos­ing the throt­tle. He’d built a cir­cuit to op­er­ate the valves, tested them on a man­u­fac­turer’s test board with great suc­cess, then brought them to the shop, to the real ve­hi­cle – and noth­ing had worked.

New­ton was able to re­place one of the six with a valve from the test kit. One. Then he found out Hyne­man had an ex­tra valve in his shop in San Fran­cisco, across the Bay from Oak­land. He raced to get it. That gave him two work­ing ser­vos, enough to con­trol one tank tread and the throt­tle. And then it was time for the demo. When their guest ar­rived, they po­si­tioned him on one side of the tank. They fired it up and used the re­mote con­trols to bring it to life. Tread turn­ing. Throt­tle roar­ing. Of course, the other side of the tank was ka­put.

‘Oh, that’s re­ally cool!’ the guy said, none the wiser.

HYNE­MAN'S IDIOM II

The other thing about the way Jamie Hyne­man talks about his in­ven­tions is that you can tell he is open to new ideas, and to suc­cess, and to fail­ure. It’s in the way he tosses in qual­i­fiers that be­gin ‘We may well…’ to in­di­cate a pos­si­bil­ity that has oc­curred to him, but that wasn’t quite his in­ten­tion, but that he un­der­stands may be­come the re­al­ity:

‘I had the bat­tal­ion chief for north­ern Cal­i­for­nia down here, and he was the one who pointed out that it may well be that the most im­por­tant use for this thing may be clean-up.

‘So if we have some­thing like this tank that is a range ex­ten­der or a man­power ex­ten­der, then that may well be the main pur­pose for it.

‘And, you know, we may well have is­sues with the sen­sors.’

THE SEN­TRY

IN LATE AU­GUST, Hyne­man, New­ton, and two VR ex­perts from An­duril gath­ered in the shop to start up the ve­hi­cle, which was nearly com­plete. It must have been 3.5 m tall, its sur­face cov­ered in shiny alu­minium, its haunches two 1 900 litre tanks. Over its left and right front cor­ners there are pro­fes­sional-grade water mon­i­tors, also known as del­uge guns, which can raise and lower and pivot and drain those tanks com­pletely in fewer than five min­utes. It is of­fi­cially called the Sen­try.

New­ton climbs up a lad­der to the top. ‘Track check!’ he says.

‘Right track is clear,’ one of the An­duril guys says. He walks to the other side. ‘Left track is clear.’

‘I’m go­ing to turn the air com­pres­sor on,’ New­ton says.

‘Air on!’ comes a cho­rus of voices, fol­lowed by the tenor thrum of the com­pres­sor. ‘Fuel pump on,’ New­ton says. ‘En­gine on!’ ‘En­gine on!’ ‘Fuel pump on. En­gine front on. Re­mote con­trol on. Start­ing en­gine.’

The roar of the diesel ex­plodes off the walls of the shop. There’s a com­puter set up on a work­bench, with a VR head­set and two hand con­trols, each op­er­at­ing one side of the ve­hi­cle – treads and mon­i­tors. ‘Gear on!’ When the joy­stick of the left hand con­trol is ac­tu­ated, a wa­ter­fall roar arises from the spin­ning of the left tread. Same with the right. When the vir­tual pi­lot looks left, the mon­i­tors pivot to fol­low his field of view. In the shop, the tank is up on blocks. In VR, it’s in a for­est of flam­ing trees. In VR, the pi­lot watches from above as the tank stalks a flick­er­ing yel­low prey. When the pi­lot pulls a trig­ger on the hand con­trol… Well, they haven’t ac­tu­ally rigged the mon­i­tors to fire yet. They’re still in a shop, af­ter all. ‘En­gine off!’ ‘Gear off!’ ‘Air off!’

WHAT IS AC­TU­ALLY HAP­PEN­ING IN JAMIE HYNE­MAN'S HEAD

‘WHEN I’M PROB­LEM-SOLV­ING with some­thing, I have, ef­fec­tively, a CAD pro­gram in my head, which is like a room that has spe­cific qual­i­ties to it that I go to some deal of ef­fort to pop­u­late. Tex­tures and smells, some­thing like that. With the in­tent of cre­at­ing at­tach­ment points for my brain. Things aren’t in­vented in limbo or in a vac­uum. They have a con­text. So I try to in­ten­tion­ally pop­u­late that con­text for them… I be­came in­ter­ested in this just be­cause I’ve got these big tracks left over from a com­mer­cial. What are they good for? And I start bring­ing them into the CAD pro­gram in­side my head. What else could it do? Well, you could stamp out a fire, be­cause that’s a lot more ef­fi­cient. And then the whole thing avalanches. Fewer water re­sources, hot­ter, drier con­di­tions – this be­comes a thing. What could we do to min­imise water use? What could we do to make sure you can op­ti­mise that? That’s what the Sen­try is, over the course of a long pe­riod of time.’

DE­PAR­TURE

IN LATE SEP­TEM­BER, a flatbed truck char­tered by An­duril pulled into the shop’s lot. Hyne­man drove the Sen­try, now off its blocks, on to the trailer. The truck drove it down to An­duril HQ in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia, where the VR will be per­fected and field tests will be­gin.

For Hyne­man, it’s been, roughly, ten years of think­ing about it, and one year of build­ing. ‘Yep,’ he says. ‘I’m done.’

CODA

ABOUT THE RUS­SIAN lin­guis­tics. It started with Slavic mu­sic. That was an off­shoot from an in­ter­est in clas­si­cal mu­sic. And that? ‘It had some­thing to do with a girl­friend whose fa­ther was in­ter­ested in clas­si­cal mu­sic,’ Hyne­man says, in the shop to help make ad­just­ments as the fire jam­mies are be­ing tai­lored on a small Singer sewing ma­chine. ‘That started me in that di­rec­tion in the first place.’ He pauses for a sec­ond, con­sid­er­ing the long, strange chain of cause-and-ef­fect, prob­lem­solv­ing anal­y­sis and re­vi­sion, which some peo­ple sim­ply call a life­time. ‘Way to get ac­cess to the girl, I guess.’

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