If there's one job that a person would probably prefer to lose to a robot, it would be fighting fires aboard ships. To help make such a vision a reality, the US Navy and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) released details of demonstration exercises conducted by their Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot (SAFFiR) aboard the fire training ship USS Shadwell last November.
Fire at sea is every sailor's worst nightmare, and that's doubly so for those aboard warships. On a civilian vessel, a fire means rescuing survivors and possibly taking to the lifeboats, but fighting fire on a naval ship means stopping it from spreading to ammunition stores and keeping the ship capable of fighting no matter how intense or widespread the blaze. For this reason, the US Navy is particularly keen on the idea of developing robots to take over the task of facing fires below decks.
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The latest product of this effort is SAFFiR, a bipedal humanoid robot standing 5 ft 10 in (178 cm) tall and weighing 143 lb (64.8 kg). Based on the CHARLI-L1 robot created at Virginia Tech, it boasts a "super-human" range of motion for operating in tight, complex spaces and moving over uneven, obstacle-strewn floors.
"Balancing on any type of terrain that’s unstable – especially for bipedal robots – is very difficult," says Brian Lattimer, associate professor for mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. "Whole-body momentum control allows for the robot to optimize the locations of all of its joints so that it maintains its center of mass on uncertain and unstable surfaces."
Sponsored by ONR, SAFFiR's purpose is firefighting and damage control. It uses thermal imaging to locate and identify fires and LIDAR and other sensors to map areas and see through smoke. Eventually, it will be able to walk and handle fire hoses on its own, but at present it's restricted to remote presence control. However, even when it gains such capabilities, it will take its instructions from sailors and "fire bosses" working remotely.
SAFFiR's capabilities were made public on February 4 at the Naval Future Force Science & Technology EXPO. The presentation described the SAFFiR trials that were carried out on November 3 to 5 aboard USS Shadwell, a decommissioned Navy vessel. For the exercise, the robot was clad in a rain suit to protect its electronics from getting wet as it put out a fire using a small hose.
"We set out to build and demonstrate a humanoid capable of mobility aboard a ship, manipulating doors and fire hoses, and equipped with sensors to see and navigate through smoke," says Dr. Thomas McKenna, ONR program manager for human-robot interaction and cognitive neuroscience. "The long-term goal is to keep sailors from the danger of direct exposure to fire."
According to ONR, the next step is a more advanced design with greater autonomy, better intelligence, communications, speed, and battery life. In addition, the team sees SAFFiR as having applications in ship's maintenance by carrying out routine inspections and freeing up sailors for more challenging tasks.
The video below shows SAFFiR in action.