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Meet the Navy’s Firefighting Robot

by John Reed on March 14, 2012

This is wild. We’ve been writing a ton about robots and drones lately because, well, it seems that the pace at which they’re becoming a fundamental part of warfare increases with each month.

Whenever we hear about Navy drones we tend to think of underwater robots or things like the Fire Scout chopper. The Navy Research Lab s working on a humanoid shipboard robot that would be sent in to fight fires on ships.

Yup, a humanoid robot, straight up Terminator style. Except instead of killing people this one is being designed to potentially save them by walking and crawling through narrow smoky passageways and using its sensors to figure out where to throw grenades loaded with fire retardent. Yup, firefighting grenades.

Here’s what NRL says about its new project:

To help further improve future shipboard firefighting capability, scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory have formed an interdisciplinary team to develop a humanoid robot that could fight fires on the next generation of combatants. A humanoid-type robot was chosen because it was deemed best suited to operate within the confines of an environment that was designed for human mobility and offered opportunity for other potential warfighting applications within the Navy and Marine Corps.

The Naval Research Laboratory’s Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) is a humanoid-type robot being designed for shipboard firefighting. 

The firefighting robot, called the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR), is being designed to move autonomously throughout the ship, interact with people, and fight fires, handling many of the dangerous firefighting tasks that are normally performed by humans. The humanoid robot should be able to maneuver well in the narrow passages and ladderways that are unique to a ship and challenging for most older, simpler robots to navigate.

The robot is designed with enhanced multi-modal sensor technology for advanced navigation and a sensor suite that includes a camera, gas sensor, and stereo IR camera to enable it to see through smoke. Its upper body will be capable of manipulating fire suppressors and throwing propelled extinguishing agent technology (PEAT) grenades. It is battery powered that holds enough energy for 30 minutes of firefighting. Like a sure-footed sailor, the robot will also be capable of walking in all directions, balancing in sea conditions, and traversing obstacles.

Another key element of the SAFFiR development is to allow damage control personnel and the robot to work cohesively as a team. Algorithms are being developed to allow autonomous mobility and decision making by the robot as a team member. To enable natural interaction with a human team leader, the robot will have multimodal interfaces that will enable the robot to track the focus of attention of the human team leader, as well as to allow the robot to understand and respond to gestures, such as pointing and hand signals. Where appropriate, natural language may also be incorporated, as well as other modes of communication and supervision.

Researchers from Virginia Tech and University of Pennsylvania are also working with NRL on the project. They plan to test the firefighting robot in a realistic firefighting environment onboard the ex-USS Shadwell in late September 2013.

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