Intel throws Fireballs in to burning buildings

IDF 2011: Sensors in places you can’t go safely

Intel - logoWhat do you get when you wrap a PCB, radio, sensors and battery in an metal sphere, then throw it in to a burning building? Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) calls it a Fireball, but you can call it whatever you want, it won’t really care.

The idea is to put sensors in hazardous environments where people won’t, shouldn’t, or can’t go, and get readings about what is going on inside. Fireball gets its name because it was designed to be thrown in to a burning building so firefighters and first responders can get an idea of the environments that they can’t otherwise see. This allows them to both do their job better while protecting themselves in a much more intelligent way.

Intel's Fireball

Fireballs, open, closed, and an iPhone

There is no single type of Fireball, it is more of a malleable concept for future sensors. The ones pictured here have temperature, O2, ammonia, CO, CO2, and acetone sensors on board, while communicating over Wi-Fi. The PCB is pretty small, that is an AA battery on top for reference, and it sits in a ceramic heat shield. All this is wrapped in an aluminum or steel ball with slots to allow atmospheric sampling. The steel version has an external antenna, the aluminum doesn’t block signals, so the antenna can be internal.

If you need some other type of sensor, you can simply slap one on the PCB, and off you go. If you want a different type of radio, you can replace the Wi-Fi with anything you want, or add it on along side. The PCB isn’t very complex, and the entire board is meant to be completely swappable. Put in or take out whatever suits your needs. You can also use a different case to mount it to a beam and leave in place, or anyplace else you want this type of sensing and feedback.

In theory, when a fire crew gets to a burning building, they toss a few of these in to open windows, doors, or whatever, and read the results. You can position them through GPS, Wi-Fi triangulation, or even to each other, and generally get an idea of what is going on in places that you can’t see or put other types of sensors in. They are portable, cheap and disposable.

The disposable part is important in the design of Fireball, but equally so is being cheap. High earth orbit rockets are disposable, but not cheap, so they are used quite sparingly. Fireballs are made to hopefully survive a fire, but if they don’t, it won’t bankrupt a medium size city to buy another one. If they are found after the fire, great. If they still work, even better. If they don’t, not a big deal either.

In the end, sensors like the Fireball are a good idea, and can even be a literal lifesaver. You would never send an expensive robot laden with sensors in to a burning building, but if you did, the info they sent back would be quite useful. Fireball seems to flip that cost/benefit ratio around quite nicely, and do it intelligently. The fact that it looks nifty, and has a good marketing name doesn’t hurt either. Win/Win on this one.S|A

Note: SemiAccurate’s lawyers have almost unanimously advised us against setting large fires to see if the local fire department uses Fireballs. While we think this rather arbitrary fiat is unfortunate, we will abide by their advice. It did sound like a very tidy experiment though.

Note 2: The one lawyer who dissented did so from jail. Albert “Smoky” Morris is currently serving 17 years for arson, but he insists that it had no bearing on his decision. Since he has a piece of paper to say he went to an expensive school, and we don’t like being told no by lawyers, we believe him.

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also a council member with Gerson Lehman Group. FullyAccurate