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U.S. Navy Adds a Sustainable Twist to Fire Fighting Robot

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Data & Technology

The U.S. Navy is adding robots to its growing sustainability toolkit - fire fighting robots, to be precise. Though green might not be the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about robots, a highly maneuverable fire fighting machine could play an important role in terms of extending the life cycle of ships and other facilities in which a speedy, accurate response can make the difference between minor damage and catastrophic loss.

Unlike the relatively simple hazmat robots commonly used on land, the robot, called  SAFFiR for Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot will be a two-legged, two-armed human-sized machine that could be used in a wide variety of industrial settings.

A humanoid robot that thinks

SAFFiR is being developed with the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) at Virginia Tech headed up by mechanical engineering professor Dennis Hong.

RoMeLa has been making waves in the robotics field with its humanish soccer-playing robot CHARLI (Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence), which just like the name says is capable of learning tasks and carrying them out on its own. SAFFiR will be a sort of Son-of-CHARLI designed to the Navy’s unique specifications.

Robots and energy consumption

In an interview last summer, Hong explained that the goal of RoMeLa’s ongoing research is to develop “a full size humanoid robot with a goal of achieving very light weight and low cost,” which dovetails with the Navy’s need for a relatively slim, highly maneuverable device that can operate efficiently in cramped quarters and work in a team without inadvertently squashing its shipmates.

Aside from safety, in robotics, light weight contributes to lower overall costs, since a lighter robot can accomplish the same movements with a less powerful motor - in other words, with more energy efficiency.

Robots that move like people

Typical land-based hazmat robots are designed with tank-like treads for stability on wide, flat surfaces. The humanoid, two-legged approach enables SAFFiR to maintain balance with the motion of the sea, turn quickly in all directions and step over door sills and other obstacles just like “a sure-footed sailor,” according to the Navy’s press material.

The secret behind SAFFiR’s maneuverability is a new walking system based on titanium springs, which will give it a more natural, human-like stride compared to the typical robot walk.

The Navy also requires arms, which in addition to enabling SAFFiR to climb ladderways are needed to lob fire-extinguishing grenades. Other possible tasks are manipulating hoses and other equipment, and carrying out rescues.

A robot dressed in peoples' clothing

Also of interest in terms of sustainability is SAFFiR’s adult size, which will allow the Navy to skip at least some of the expense of developing specialized heat-resistant parts for the robot. SAFFiR can simply protect itself from heat and smoke damage by donning fire-fighting gear designed for humans which, eerily, could make it practically indistinguishable from its human mates.

Robots could detect and pinpoint fires more efficiently

As for the head, that’s where things get really interesting. Some of SAFFiR’s specialized equipment enables it to out-perform human senses, including a gas sensor and an infrared camera for seeing through smoke.

That could enable SAFFiR to detect fires more quickly and respond to them more efficiently, keeping damage (and repair costs) to a minimum.

Robots that understand us

The real brains behind SAFFiR is the robot’s interactive interfaces, which enable it to understand human gestures and language, and act on them autonomously.

This cognitive ability is a quantum leap beyond remote-controlled robots, which require a human operator to directly control each movement. In addition to carrying out specific commands, SAFFiR will be capable of making decisions on-the-fly in concert with human teammates.

The next generation of cognitive robots

SAFFiR is just one example of the Department of Defense’s interest in cognitive robotics. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has also been developing software that can enable robots to carry out delicate tasks autonomously, such as turning a key in a lock.

Though the Navy and DoD ultimately have a fighting robot in mind, cognitive learning will also be an important factor in the next generation of domestic robots, particularly in the home health care field, as well as for the army of robotic devices that will be needed to maintain and repair solar arrays, wind turbines and other emerging green infrastructure.

As for SAFFiR, if all goes well, sometime next year the robot will get its first real life workouts aboard the USS Shadwell, a decommissioned ship that is “regularly set ablaze” by the Naval Research Laboratory as a full scale damage control testing facility.

Image: SAFFiR fire fighting robot concept, courtesy of U.S. Navy.

Follow Tina Casey on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.