Fighting Fires - And COVID

By Mike Brezonick25 January 2021

Howe & Howe’s tracked firefighting robot gets makeover to become wide area disinfection system.

By Mike Brezonick

In this time of pandemic, a great many things are being used in ways for which they were not first designed or intended. Kitchen tables have become workspaces and manufacturing systems dedicated to engine air filters are churning out face masks.

Powered by a Yanmar diesel engine, the Thermite RS3 firefighting robot from Howe & Howe has been modified into a large area disinfecting machine to fight the COVID-19 virus. Photo: Textron Systems Corp./Howe & Howe

In a more dramatic example of repurposing, a mobile robot designed to fight fires without endangering firefighting personnel has found a new role in the battle against COVID-19.

Howe & Howe Inc., a Textron Systems company based in Waterboro, Me., that specializes in advance robotic vehicles for extreme conditions, developed the Thermite RS3 industrial firefighting robot in 2019. A wide-chassis tracked robot designed to deliver 2500 gal. of water or firefighting foam from more than 500 yards away while navigating rugged terrain, the machine most recently has been modified into a mobile COVID-19 disinfection system.

“We had a client that was purchasing an RS3,” said Paul Ford, Robotics Program manager at Howe & Howe. “And they asked, is there any way you guys could modify this robot so that we could use it to spray decontamination fluid?

“We’d worked with the company that makes the decontamination fluid that that this client was using, so we were already familiar with that particular fluid. So we said, of course we can.

“We put our guys to work on it took about 30 days. We designed a system, made some minor modifications to the robot and came up with a system that could spray decontamination fluid.”

The basic platform of the Thermite RS3 robot consists of a Yanmar 3TNV88C diesel engine rated 36.8 hp that drives both a hydrostatic track drive system – the first iteration uses a Hydro-Gear system, while later models will use Poclain pumps and motors – for propulsion, along with the hydraulics that control spray nozzles and the positioning of a positive pressure ventilator (PPV) fan system that is used to atomize and spread water or foam.

Machine functions are operated remotely through a belly pack controller.


For large-scale disinfecting, Howe & Howe developed a tow-behind trailer that includes a Waterous pump driven by a Kohler gasoline engine. “Our robot typically relies on the pumping pressure from a fire truck or an external pumping source,” explained Ford. “There is no onboard pump to pump water.

“So the two things we had to deal with was to create our own pumping system so we didn’t have to rely on some external source to create that pressure, then we had to properly jet the nozzles.”

Two nozzles spray the disinfectant. One is controllable, “so if you were driving down the road and you wanted to spray a sidewalk or something, you could do that,” said Ford. The second nozzle feeds into the airstream of the PPV ventilator.

“We put 80 gpm of water into the ventilator air stream for PPV firefighting,” Ford said. “We had to readjust that rate, because 80 gpm was way too much for the deep disinfectant. We jetted that all the way down to 20 gpm to get the right flow rate and right foaming action for the solution.”

The trailer is sized specifically to mount commonly used totes. “Those IBC totes are a standard size and we wanted it so you could take out two pins and just swap those totes out with a forklift in a hurry,” Ford said. “You can continue to decontaminating without having to stop for extended lengths of time while you refill the tote.”

The robot can disinfect large areas outside or inside of buildings such as factories, warehouses or parking lots and garages. Ford indicated that there has been “a lot of interest,” in the disinfecting robot and expects sales to follow.

This story first appeared in the December issue of Diesel Progress. For a free subscription, click here

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