U.S. Navy to test humanoid robotic firefighters

Autonomous robots expected to communicate and work with sailors

Some day, if there's a fire on a U.S. naval ship, a humanoid robot may rush in to put it out.

That's the vision coming out of the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research, which will host a test of robotic firefighters this summer.

SAFFiR humanoid robot
The U.S. Navy is working with the SAFFiR humanoid robot to make it an onboard firefighter. (Photo: Naval Research Laboratory)

Firefighting robots would take on high-risk tasks, such as going into an intensely hot and smoky environment, that a human sailor would normally have to do.

"People can only stand relatively short periods of time directly fighting the fire because of the heat, the radiation, the smoke and the steam," said Thomas McKenna, program officer in the Office of Naval Research's Warfighter Performance Department in the Human-Robot Interaction Division. "A firefighter during a shipboard fire may only be able to be exposed for 15 minutes. The idea is to get around those human limitations."

The Navy plans to test the robots on the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned landing ship docked in Mobile, Ala., where the Navy conducts some of its damage control research.

McKenna told Computerworld a specific date hasn't been set for the test but it's likely to be in August.

The Navy will be working with the two-legged Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), which was built by scientists at Virginia Tech, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania. Two different versions of the SAFFiR will be tested -- one an approximately 5-foot-tall machine with a basic set of legs and a simple control mechanism, and another 6-foot-tall robot with more advanced legs that should be capable of more robust locomotion, according to McKenna.

During the test, the robots will need to balance on a boat, turn valves, find, pick up and drag a fire hose and then turn the water on the fire, using its vision system to track the fire and search for victims.

The demo also will test new sensors that have been designed to "see" through smoke. The robots also will have stereo, infrared and laser scanning sensors.

In May 2012, a fire aboard a nuclear submarine, the USS Miami, injured seven people, including three shipyard firefighters. The sub was drydocked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine. Unable to afford to make the repairs, the government was forced to inactivate the submarine. A shipyard worker admitted to setting the fire.

"In the USS Miami fire, smoke was an impediment to locating the source of the fire," McKenna said. "We've developed imaging technology to see through the smoke to find doorways and flames so the robot can navigate through the smoke."

The Navy also will test a sensor mounted on a quadrotor, a miniature helicopter designed to fly through a ship, looking for victims and the source of the fire.

The robots already have some autonomy and can make decisions about taking steps and moving their joints, McKenna said. However, a human will still supervisor the robot and will control the machine from a safe distance and make decisions about whether the robot is ready to take on its next task.

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