Firefighter holding hose on a roaring blaze


Bigger Fires. Better Firefighting.

Tandon’s ALIVE program helps the nation’s firefighters keep up with deadly blazes

Fires—from blazes in city high-rises to wildfires in the tinder-dry West—are getting more severe and harder to combat. Structures, now built of more lightweight, flammable materials, burn faster than they used to. This is the bad news.
     The good news is that the Fire Research Group at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering has created an innovative, interactive online teaching tool called ALIVE (Advanced Learning through Integrated Visual Environments) to get ahead of the firefighting curve. The goal is to train firefighters to combat today’s fires with today’s—not yesterday’s—strategies. “Current firefighting practice is rooted more in tradition than in modern scientific advances,” explains Sunil Kumar, a professor of mechanical engineering and the group’s founder. “Our interest is in translating the available science-based knowledge to the practice of fighting fires.”
     ALIVE grew out of a research project Kumar and his team conducted in 2008. Partnering with the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), fires were set in vacant apartment buildings on Governors Island to see how wind-driven high-rise conflagrations behaved, and to discover better methods for controlling them. 
     Fire Research Group member Prabodh Panindre had years of experience researching heat conduction but was still amazed by the power of the blowtorch effect, which occurs when strong winds blast through open windows and doors, fueling fires. “We got to see up close how wind-driven fires can increase temperature to deadly levels in just a matter of seconds,” Panindre says.
     The tactics that the FDNY, NIST, and NYU Fire Research Group developed during these high-rise burn experiments were so effective that the FDNY wanted to teach them to their entire force, but there wasn’t an efficient way of packaging the information to train thousands of firefighters. So the FDNY asked Kumar’s team to come up with a scenario-based online training program, and the idea for ALIVE was born. Support from the Department of Homeland Security’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant program helped transform the idea into reality.
     As effective as the FDNY’s success with ALIVE was, it was even more exciting that this training would be available to departments everywhere. “Urban departments are usually better funded, equipped, and trained than suburban and rural ones,” Kumar explains. A program like ALIVE can close the gap between science-based interventions and less-effective firefighting practices for the 70 percent of the nation’s 1.1 million firefighters not in urban areas and working on call or as volunteers. 
     Ten ALIVE training modules cover topics like high-rise fires, fire dynamic, lightweight structure fires, and firefighter health and safety. The modules have two main components: firefighters describing (through text, images, and videos) real-life fires and the strategies that worked or didn’t, followed by multiple-choice questions pertaining to the situation and tactics.
     “The modules give you feedback immediately and don’t let you move on until you understand why your answer was incorrect,” says Ulysses Seal, the fire chief in Bloomington, Minnesota, who has been training his team with ALIVE since 2008. “This is how ALIVE makes sure firefighters walk away with the knowledge they need, and that they retain it.”
     Seal, who worked on three of the modules, explains how fires have changed: “Fifty years ago, you had a house made out of wood, filled with furnishings made from natural materials. Now they’re made of composite materials that contribute to early structural failure and rapid fire growth. They’re filled with furniture made out of plastic, and this contributes to a much faster fire growth and production of smoke and poisonous gases.” He points out that in order to be effective, his firefighters have to understand how to adjust their tactics to address such changes.

     Each module takes about two years to create, and Tandon’s team works with subject matter experts and firefighters for a uniquely powerful educational experience. “We strive to make every module scientifically accurate but also firefighter-friendly,” says Panindre.
     In the last 10 years there have been an average 10 mega-wildfires (larger than 100,000 acres) annually. So Tandon and its partners decided ALIVE’s most recent modules should cover wildfires, be geared toward first responders, and be focused on addressing wildfire behavior, terrain, and changing environmental conditions. Pete Scully, who had a long career with Cal Fire and worked as an expert on the wildfire modules, was impressed with their usefulness to all firefighters, regardless of their level of wildfire expertise. 
     In an effort to mitigate the risk of cancer among firefighters and save lives, ALIVE is hoping its next module will be about proper storage of PPE (personal protective equipment). One important fact learned so far: firefighters should keep their PPE enclosed in zippered duffel bags or sealed storage bins—not loose in the trunks of their cars, as many do—before proper washing, cleaning, and decontamination to avoid off-gassing of carcinogens. “Researchers have made substantial progress in developing technologies and tactics to improve firefighter safety,” Panindre says. “But firefighter training and dissemination must keep pace with that research for it to truly make a difference.”
Sarah Miller

A shot of the backs of two firefighters, in full gear, in front of an inferno

(Wyoming Army National Guard)

“Current firefighting practice is rooted more in tradition than in modern scientific advances,” says Sunil Kumar. “Our interest is in translating science-based knowledge to fighting fires.”


Photo of a camera mounted to a drone with three rotors


Help from on High

NYU Abu Dhabi is spearheading research into autonomous drone technology for search and rescue

Picture a disaster zone: maybe a tsunami has struck or a nuclear reactor has melted down (or both, as was the case in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011). Noxious gases pollute the air, and destroyed buildings obscure survivors. Then, after the initial calamity, the ensuing hours, days, and weeks are full of their own unique peril for the first responders who arrive to assess damage, rescue the living, and recover the dead. These responders are at increased risk of injury, death, and potential illness caused by invisible pollutants.
     But what if it were a fleet of autonomous drones—not humans—that performed disaster assessments and identified and evaluated the ongoing dangers? For those who conduct search-and-rescue operations, such technology could save lives.
     “If a building has just collapsed in an earthquake, we could send these drones inside a building so they can provide mapping,” says Professor Anthony Tzes, head of electrical and computer engineering at NYU Abu Dhabi, who is spearheading research into such autonomous drone technology.
     Tzes’s team has recently been mounting sensors and affixing robot manipulators—bionic arms, if you will—to a crew of five large drones that can lift objects weighing roughly 40 pounds. These drones can communicate with one another and do not require any human piloting or directing. They can detect and maneuver around objects in their path and gather all kinds of essential environmental data—critical information during disaster relief.
     “Imagine we have several aerial manipulators with robot arms at their belly. They allow us to lift heavy payloads,” he says, or to have “those drones come in contact with structures, with the environment. Then you can do some sensing, which is contact-based sensing versus contactless. You can measure cracks, you can do painting [of placards and marks that communicate the extent of damage to rescuers]. You can do a whole bunch of different things.”
     In addition to its lifesaving potential, this technology has applications in the more workaday civilian sphere. For example, Tzes is working with administrators at the Abu Dhabi airport on using these autonomous drones to assess and clean the facades of the airport’s terminals.
     Military uses are also possible. An autonomous drone with a stereoscopic camera could identify an invading enemy drone, make sure it’s not a bird, and then use its robot arms to “throw a net on top of the invader drone and capture it, or force it to drop to the ground,” he says.
     But as far as Tzes is concerned, the greatest potential is in fighting pollution and conducting search-and-rescue missions. To that end, he and his team have outfitted their drones with barometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers, and chemical sensors.
     “We want to smell odors, and we want to detect fumes from biohazards and things like this,” he says. “If you have leakage of methane, it may be an indication of an upcoming explosion in an oil pipeline” or, in search-and-recovery situations, of decomposing bodies.
     Having worked on drone technology for the past nine years, Tzes has no intention of stopping anytime soon. In addition to everything else, his team is now developing surgical manipulators for minor operations that a nonautonomous drone could perform. “The surgical operation has been tested,” Tzes says. “The drone on its own has been tested. Now we want to put those together.” —Sara Ivry

A Better Bone Implant

Three schools join forces to create a new alloy to help surgical patients

A patient undergoing craniofacial surgery has many things to deal with—but a second surgery to remove hardware rejected by the body shouldn’t be one of them.
    Titanium has been the go-to metal for bone implants and surgical fixation procedures (such as mending jaws and knees) because of its strength, but it comes with a downside: it’s not absorbed by skin or other tissue, which can lead to infections.

An xray shows a hip implant and two knee implants


Magnesium (an alternative that lacks titanium’s strength) safely biodegrades, but it degrades so quickly that it has its own complication: the formation of hydrogen bubbles. Now a collaboration among researchers at three NYU schools—Dentistry, Engineering, and Medicine—is yielding a promising solution to the conundrum.
     The team has been testing a magnesium alloy that offsets the weakness of each metal, creating a compound that’s strong and slower to resorb. “Magnesium alloys have been known for decades to be highly corrosive,” says bioengineer Paulo Coelho, the Dr. Leonard I. Linkow Professor in the College of Dentistry who also has affiliations at the medical and engineering schools. For some time, researchers have tried getting magnesium properties “to degrade in a more ‘friendly’ way in the human body, so bone formation and healing will take place around the [implant].”
     The researchers, including Engineering’s Nikhil Gupta, Medicine’s Eduardo Rodriguez and Andrea Torroni, and Dentistry’s Lukasz Witek, have performed in vivo experiments in sheep in which the new alloy, T-5 magnesium, takes up to six months to be 50 percent resorbed, “so it still has some property to help any sort of fixation,” says Coelho. The alloy has properties very much like bone, appears to have no risk of rejection, and has limited risk of infection. The team is running experiments of greater duration, to see how long the alloy takes to resorb completely.
     When will this alloy be ready for humans? Doctors in Europe are using magnesium alloys different from the one NYU is testing in minor orthopedic fixations, although not for procedures as extensive as craniofacial reconstruction. Based on the results, Coelho says, NYU’s alloy “is degrading in a more favorable way.
     “We want to avoid a potential second surgical procedure to remove hardware, especially for a major facial fracture,” he says. It’s a claim everyone agrees with—and now it can be made with confidence. —Andrew Postman

The Science Behind...

Blowing Bubbles

Science turned sudsy for a recent study in the Applied Math Lab

Street performers in Washington Square Park are coaxing big, baroquely shaped blimps of bubbles from a sudsy liquid, some dowels, and string. Meanwhile, scientists inside the Courant Institute Applied Mathematics Lab, just a block from the park, have researched the magic (aka math) of making bubbles.

Close up of some soapy, filmy bubbles


“I walk through the park every day to and from the lab, so there are plenty of opportunities to watch bubble makers,” says assistant professor of mathematics Leif Ristroph, a self-professed “curiosity-driven scientist” who was inspired to lead a study on bubble-blowing methods that compared slow and sustained pressure/airflow with short and rapid bursts of pressure/air.
     “I’ve been interested in fluid-structure interactions, how objects and flows influence one another, where we often think about an object being flexible or elastic,” he says. “It was no big leap to think about the object being a film, and when I realized no one had studied how fluid films get pushed into bubbles by flow, I thought this is something too fun and too fundamental to pass up.”
     And so a mashup of the whimsical and scientific arrived at the Applied Math Lab, where a water tunnel was rigged to make the perfect “wind” of current that pressed on a thin span of olive oil to create underwater bubbles. The entire process was captured on video. Ristroph is not sure what the commercial applications could be—though consumer products like sprays, foams, and emulsions spring to mind.
     “Suds and foams are many bubbles joined together,” he says. “The little bubbles in foams like to reorganize their boundaries in ways that minimize surface area, so there is beautiful mathematics and physics here too!” —Rory Evans

| Video: Pressure vs Air Flow |
The Science Behind Bubbles